Study Guide

White Noise Family

By Don DeLillo


They feel a sense of renewal, of communal recognition. The women crisp and alert, in diet trim, knowing people's names. The husbands content to measure out the time, distant but ungrudging, accomplished in parenthood, something about them suggesting massive insurance coverage. (1.2)

The opening scene of <em>White Noise </em>shows parents dropping their kids off for the beginning of the college year. Narrator Jack observes that these parents are all the same. The mothers and fathers all—and without fail—act a certain way. On a final note, Jack says that there's something about these parents that suggests "massive insurance coverage." In other words, these people are modern Americans, who always need to feel reassured about everything. That's why they buy massive insurance coverage, so they can try to be prepared for the things in life they can't control. 

Soon it was time for lunch. We entered a period of chaos and noise. We milled about, bickered a little, dropped utensils. Finally we were satisfied with what we'd been able to snatch from the cupboards and refrigerator or swipe from each other and we began quietly plastering mustard or mayonnaise on our brightly colored food. (2.17)

It looks like the members of the Jack/Babette family like to look out for themselves when it comes to grabbing lunch. This is no 1950's kitchen scene. Babette isn't going around making lunches. Everyone is grabbing what they can and making whatever they like. The "chaos" of the scene no doubt reflects the chaos of modern life, since the family is usually supposed to be a miniature version of society as a whole. 

"This isn't the lunch I'd planned for myself," Babette said. "I was seriously thinking yogurt and wheat germ."

"Where have we heard that before?" Denise said.

"Probably right here,' Steffie said." (2.7)

Poor Babette buys herself healthy food because she thinks she can trick herself into eating it. When she doesn't end up eating it, though, her daughter Denise and stepdaughter Steffie are all over her about it. This is DeLillo humor at its best. These two young girls are talking to their mom as though she's their kid. They scold her for being wasteful. Also, we never really see any example of Babette scolding the girls about anything major. The traditional family just ain't what it used to be. But then again, maybe it never existed in the first place. 

Denise was eleven, a hard-nosed kid. She led a more or less daily protest against those of her mother's habits that struck her as wasteful or dangerous. (2.29)

Denise doesn't mess around. If she's got a problem with her mom, she's going to say so. Denise is actually the one who takes charge when Jack finds Babette's secret bottle of Dylar pills. Denise takes the pills without telling Jack and throws them into the garbage disposal. Another great example of kids taking on the role of parents in this crazy modern world. Kids these days, eh?

That night, a Friday, we ordered Chinese Food and watched television together, the six of us. Babette had made it a rule. She seemed to think that if kids watched television one night a week with parents or stepparents, the effect would be to de-glamorize the medium in their eyes, make it wholesome domestic sport. (4.18)

Old-school families gathered by the fireplace. Modern ones gather around the TV. Babette actually makes this a rule because she figures her kids won't like TV so much if she forces them to watch it as a family activity. Hmm. How well would this logic would work if she gave them alcohol and asked them to drink with her?

[Heinrich] is fourteen, often evasive and moody, at other times disturbingly compliant. I have a sense that his ready yielding to our wishes and demands is a private weapon of reproach. (6.2)

Jack doesn't really know the inner thoughts of his fourteen-year-old son. What father does? Heinrich is an interesting cat, and Jack knows it. But Jack just can't seem to get a handle on what Heinrich's whole deal is. Jack can't even talk to Heinrich that long without becoming frustrated. But on the other hand, Jack badly wants to connect with his son. 

I watched him walk through the downpour to the school entrance. He moved with deliberate slowness, taking off his camouflage cap ten yards from the doorway. At such moments I find I love him with an animal desperation, a need to take him under my coat and crush him to my chest, keep him there, protect him. (6.44)

After a frustration conversation with Heinrich, Jack watches Heinrich walk off into the rain on his way to school. Heinrich seems like he might be a bit of a independent loner. Who knows? He might also be depressed. Jack doesn't know, but he still has a strong fatherly impulse to protect and take care of his son. 

Steffie was holding my hand in a way I'd come to realize, over a period of time, was not meant to be gently possessive, as I'd thought at first, but reassuring. I was a little astonished. A firm grip that would help me restore confidence in myself, keep me from becoming resigned to whatever melancholy moods she thought she detected hovering about my person. (9.42)

Jack can't seem to come to the full realization that his kids parent him more than the other way around. In this scene, Steffie actually seems to sense how insecure Jack is, and she takes his hand to reassure him. The act shocks Jack when he realizes what her gesture is supposed to mean. In this book, adults often seem like children and children seem like adults. 

We crowded before the window in Steffie's small room, watching the spectacular sunset. Only Heinrich stayed away, either because he distrusted wholesome communal pleasures or because he believed there was something ominous in the modern sunset. (14.1)

Awww, ain't that cute. The family likes to gather around a bedroom window to watch a sunset together. Fourteen-year-old Heinrich is nowhere to be found, though. He doesn't really like the sunsets in the town of Blacksmith, possibly because their beauty comes from the insane air pollution in the area. Or maybe he's just too much of a loner to appreciate family togetherness. There's nothing surprising about that, though. Fourteen-year-olds have been known to appreciate their alone time. 

Bee made us feel self-conscious at times, a punishment that visitors will unintentionally inflict on their complacent hosts. Her presence seemed to radiate a surgical light. We began to see ourselves as a group that acted without design, avoided making decisions, took turns being stupid and emotionally unstable, left wet towels everywhere, mislaid our youngest member. (19.1)

Bee is Jack's daughter, but that doesn't mean she's a comfortable part of his family. Bee lives with her mother instead of Jack, and Jack has built a certain family unit with Babette. That means that even though Bee is Jack's daughter, she comes into the house as an outsider and makes the people inside it feel judged. This description of her shows the extent to which our sense of "family" can be connected to daily habits, and how quickly an outsider can disrupt those habits. 

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