White Noise

Don Delillo's White Noise introduces a character -- Jack Gladney -- who is embroiled in a constant struggle to identify himself as something in opposition to death. Specifically the form his identity may possibly take is difficult for him to conceive; particularly, since he is obsessed with the notion of death, and in fact, defines his whole outward existence around its presence. The plot of his life, the plot of the novel, and indeed, the plot of any novel or tale, to Jack, demands that they culminate in death. Jack faces an identity crisis, and this crisis ultimately centers on the unknown; foremost among the things that remain unknown and unseen to Jack is the end of his life. Consequently, he attempts to manufacture an identity that possesses a fundamental relationship with death and is able to transcend it. The starkest contrast to Jack's character is Wilder, who is both oblivious to his mortal condition and is a whirlwind of impulses and urges. The existence of plot in White Noise implies that it will end -- it will die along with Jack -- however, death does not come because Jack seizes upon the immediate events of life, thus disregarding the fact that life is terminal. Delillo makes use of the plot in his novel to uncover the intrinsic relationship between death and individual conceptions of identity.

The inaccessibility of certain forms of knowledge is a barrier to grasping what something or someone truly is. This is illustrated by the most photographed barn in the world that Jack and Murray visit: the tourists are unable to see the real barn because the advertisements and photographs develop an aura surrounding the barn, and make it into something that it could not be without their presence. So, Murray decides, "They are taking pictures of pictures." (Delillo 13). The existence of the mechanisms of advertisement prevents anyone from truly seeing the barn. Similarly, human beings are inaccessible and require a type of advertisement, because the mechanism of death places them in a concrete setting. By being situated in a specific time and place, there are human drives to associate individuals with something larger, with something that transcends their mortality. This is the point that drives Jack to create an identity for himself that will forever be linked to someone who cannot be forgotten. The realization that his deeds and thoughts are definitively transient is the impetus behind his search for identity. Additionally, he recognizes that the identity he has chosen for himself is just as false as the pictures of the barn, and analogously, prevents him or anyone else from truly knowing who he is.

Jack deliberately links himself with Hitler and is commended for the fact that, "Nobody on the faculty of any college or university in this part of the country can so much as utter the word Hitler without a nod in your direction, literally or metaphorically." (Delillo 11). However, this fact is not enough to solidify Jack's aura to such an extent that it may, somehow, overcome death. Jack is impelled to add a fictitious initial to his name and to gain weight so he can "grow out" into the role (Delillo 17). This exemplifies Jack's identity crisis: he has become a commercial commodity whose aim is to be sold and perpetuated. Although it may be possible for his image to become eternalized and to extend into the ages, his truly elemental existence of stimuli and emotion can never overcome death and can never be reproduced by any purchasable likeness. To Jack, this is the primary failing of his contrived image, and is an aspect of his obsession with death.

The draw of death, on a conceptual level, for Jack is that it is utterly inaccessible for a living being. The barriers between knowledge and truth are simply too much for Jack to stand; he finds himself unable to accept that some things are not for the realm of human understanding, and that some serious aspects of life are left completely up to providence. The perpetual reliance upon knowledge handed down from authorities,…