White Noise, a book about the influence of fear on human life, focuses on small everyday worries, as well as deep, existential crises. The novel’s most prominent manifestation of fear is the characters’ hopeless quest to control their own mortality: frightfully obsessing over their health, jogging up and down stadium steps, reading food labels with a dire sense of dread, and carefully considering the physical effects of chemicals with which they may have come into contact. In this way, life seems fragile. The inevitability of death looms large, treated as “some inert element in the air,” a pervasive entity that the characters “breathe.”
Despite Jack and Babette’s understanding that death is inescapable, they remain unable to accept it. This accounts for their interest in Dylar, a drug that lessens a person’s terror of death. Though Dylar does not delay death, it makes them feel proactive and, thus, ever so slightly less helpless in the face of death. Jack’s desperation makes clear his need for control over his life and death, indicating that the root of his fear has less to do with death itself and more to do with his inability to control or affect its arrival. That death is everywhere only increases his feelings of helplessness in the face of a powerful, un-addressable phenomenon. He becomes, in essence, afraid of fear itself—the only thing he might be able to change.
Jack and Babette also reveal their fear of death and their desire to control their health by incessantly lying to doctors. Worried sick after his exposure to Nyodene D., Jack schedules multiple check-ups with his physician. But when Dr. Chakravarty asks if he has any reason to believe he’s been exposed to harmful chemicals, Jack lies. He does this because he’s terrified of how Chakravarty might respond if he tells the truth. Though he knows that lying to Chakravarty won’t keep him alive, he seems to think that keeping Chakravarty from giving him bad news will suppress his own fear.
Though Jack initially seems aware that conquering his fear of death will not change his fate, by the end of the book he begins to convince himself that by getting rid of fear, he might avoid death, too. “It’s almost as though our fear is what brings it on,” he tells Murray. “If we could learn not to be afraid, we could live forever.” This exaltation of a clearly untrue theory shows that Jack’s intellectual approach to death easily leads him to false conclusions. Thus, DeLillo uses Jack’s reaction to death as a way of revealing the human tendency to use analysis as a way of over-compensating for fear. The characters in White Noise commit themselves so wholeheartedly to flawed logic that they appear willing to abandon fact—that is, as long as their theories are rhetorically (not factually) sound. By formulating such strongly intellectual arguments, they therefore feel more in control of their circumstances.
Fear, Death, and Control ThemeTracker
Fear, Death, and Control Quotes in White Noise
Babette and I do our talking in the kitchen. The kitchen and the bedroom are the major chambers around here, the power haunts, the sources. She and I are alike in this, that we regard the rest of the house as storage space for furniture, toys, all the unused objects of earlier marriages and different sets of children, the gifts of lost in-laws, the hand-me-downs and rummages. Things, boxes. Why do these possessions carry such sorrowful weight? There is a darkness attached to them, a foreboding. They make me wary not of personal failure and defeat but of something more general, something large in scope and content.
Who will die first?
This question comes up from time to time, like where are the car keys. It ends a sentence, prolongs a glance between us. I wonder if the thought itself is part of the nature of physical love, a reverse Darwinism that awards sadness and fear to the survivor. Or is it some inert element in the air we breathe, a rare thing like neon, with a melting point, an atomic weight?
Our senses? Our senses are wrong a lot more often than they’re right. This has been proved in the laboratory. Don’t you know about all those theorems that say nothing is what it seems?
Most of her students are old. It isn’t clear to me why they want to improve their posture. We seem to believe it is possible to ward off death by following rules of good grooming. Sometimes I go with my wife to the church basement and watch her stand, turn, assume various heroic poses, gesture gracefully. She makes references to yoga, kendo, trance-walking. She talks of Sufi dervishes, Sherpa mountaineers. The old folks nod and listen. Nothing is foreign, nothing too remote to apply. I am always surprised at their acceptance and trust, the sweetness of their belief. Nothing is too doubtful to be of use to them as they seek to redeem their bodies from a lifetime of bad posture. It is the end of skepticism.
Love helps us develop an identity secure enough to allow itself to be placed in another’s care and protection. Babette and I have turned our lives for each other’s thoughtful regard, turned them in the moonlight in our pale hands, spoken deep into the night about fathers and mothers, childhood, friendships, awakenings, old loves, old fears (except fear of death). No detail must be left out, not even a dog with ticks or a neighbor’s boy who ate an insect on a dare.
Who knows what I want to do? Who knows what anyone wants to do? How can you be sure about something like that? Isn’t it all a question of brain chemistry, signals going back and forth, electrical energy in the cortex? How do you know whether something is really what you want to do or just some kind of nerve impulse in the brain? […] It’s all this activity in the brain and you don’t know what’s you as a person and what’s some neuron that just happens to fire or just happens to misfire. Isn’t that why Tommy Roy killed those people?
In the morning I walked to the bank. I went to the automated teller machine to check my balance. I inserted my card, entered my secret code, tapped out my request. The figure on the screen roughly corresponded to my independent estimate, feebly arrived at after long searches through documents, tormented arithmetic. Waves of relief and gratitude flowed over me. The system had blessed my life. I felt its support and approval. The system hardware, the mainframe sitting in a locked room in some distant city. What a pleasing interaction. I sensed that something of deep personal value, but not money, not that at all, had been authenticated and confirmed. […] The system was invisible, all the more disquieting to deal with. But we were in accord, at least for now. The networks, the circuits, the streams, the harmonies.
[…] it’s not a question of greatness. It’s not a question of good and evil. I don’t know what it is. Look at it this way. Some people always wear a favorite color. Some people carry a gun. Some people put on a uniform and feel bigger, stronger, safer. It’s in this area that my obsessions dwell.
Words, pictures, numbers, facts, graphics, statistics, specks, waves, particles, motes. Only a catastrophe gets our attention. We want them, we need them, we depend on them. As long as they happen somewhere else. This is where California comes in. Mud slides, brush fires, coastal erosion, earthquakes, mass killings, et cetera. We can relax and enjoy these disasters because in our hearts we feel that California deserves what it gets. Californians invented the concept of life-style. This alone warrants their doom.
We looked at each other. Behind that dopey countenance, a complex intelligence operated. […] The inconsolable crying went on. I let it wash over me, like rain in sheets. I entered it, in a sense. I let it fall and tumble across my face and chest. I began to think he had disappeared inside this wailing noise and if I could join him in his lost and suspended place we might together perform some reckless wonder of intelligibility. I let it break across my body. It might not be so terrible, I thought, to have to sit here for four more hours, with the motor running and the heater on, listening to this uniform lament.
Certain elements in the crew had decided to pretend that it was not a crash but a crash landing that was seconds away. After all, the difference between the two is only one word. Didn’t this suggest that the two forms of flight termination were more or less interchangeable? How much could one word matter? An encouraging question under the circumstances, if you didn’t think about it too long, and there was no time to think right now. The basic difference between a crash and a crash landing seemed to be that you could sensibly prepare for a crash landing, which is exactly what they were trying to do.
It seems that danger assigns to public voices the responsibility of a rhythm, as if in metrical units there is a coherence we can use to balance whatever senseless and furious event is about to come rushing around our heads. […] What people in an exodus fear most immediately is that those in positions of authority will long since have fled, leaving us in charge of our own chaos.
Could a nine-year-old girl suffer a miscarriage due to the power of suggestion? Would she have to be pregnant first? Could the power of suggestion be strong enough to work backward in this manner, from miscarriage to pregnancy to menstruation to ovulation? Which comes first, menstruation or ovulation? Are we talking about mere symptoms or deeply entrenched conditions? Is a symptom a sign or a thing? What is a thing and how do we know it’s not another thing?
I turned off the radio, not to help me think but to keep me from thinking.
Our fear was accompanied by a sense of awe that bordered on the religious. It is surely possible to be awed by the thing that threatens your life, to see it as a cosmic force, so much larger than yourself, more powerful, created by elemental and willful rhythms. This was a death made in the laboratory, defined and measurable, but we thought of it at the time in a simple and primitive way, as some seasonal perversity of the earth like a flood or tornado, something not subject to control. Our helplessness did not seem compatible with the idea of a man-made event.
The more we rehearse disaster, the safer we’ll be from the real thing. Life seems to work that way, doesn’t it? […] If reality intrudes in the form of a car crash or a victim falling off a stretcher, it is important to remember that we are not here to mend broken bones or put out real fires. We are here to simulate.
The sense of failed expectations was total. A sadness and emptiness hung over the scene. A dejection, a sorry gloom. We felt it ourselves, my son and I, quietly watching. It was in the room, seeping into the air from pulsing streams of electrons. The reporter seemed at first merely apologetic. But as he continued to discuss the absence of mass graves, he grew increasingly forlorn, gesturing at the diggers, shaking his head, almost ready to plead with us for sympathy and understanding.
I tried not to feel disappointed.
[…] I think it’s a mistake to lose one’s sense of death, even one’s fear of death. Isn’t death the boundary we need? Doesn’t it give a precious texture to life, a sense of definition? You have to ask yourself whether anything you do in this life would have beauty and meaning without the knowledge you carry of a final line, a border or limit.
He would be Death, or death’s errand-runner, a hollow-eyed technician from the plague era, from the era of inquisitions, endless wars, of bedlams and leporsariums. He would be an aphorist of last thing, giving me the barest glance—civilized, ironic—as he spoke his deft and stylish line about my journey out. I watched for a long time, waiting for him to move a hand. His stillness was commanding. I felt myself getting whiter by the second. What does it mean to become white? How does it feel to see Death in the flesh, come to gather you in? I was scared to the marrow. […] So much remained. Every word and thing a beadwork of bright creation. My own plain hand, crosshatched and whorled in a mesh of expressive lines, a life terrain, might itself be the object of a person’s study and wonder for years. A cosmology against the void.
There was something redemptive here. Dragging him foot-first across the tile, across the medicated carpet, through the door and into the night. Something large and grand and scenic. Is it better to commit evil and attempt to balance it with an exalted act than to live a resolutely neutral life? I know I felt virtuous, I felt blood-stained and stately, dragging the badly wounded man through the dark and empty street.