Study Guide

White Noise Mortality

By Don DeLillo

Mortality

Sweat trickled down my ribs. The digital reading on the clock-radio was 3:51. Always odd numbers at times like this. What does it mean? Is death odd-numbered? (11.1)

Jack is so spooked by death that he always thinks he's seeing signs of it. The dude's even a little suspicious when it comes to seeing odd numbers on his clock radio. The book never really tells us whether he's being crazy, or if there might be something real behind all of his paranoia. 

"You are intentionally facing death. You are setting out to do exactly what people spend their lives trying not to do. Die. I want to know why." (35.57)

Jack can't wrap his head around Orest Mercator's plan to sit in a room full of deadly snakes for as long as possible. For Jack, everything humans do in life is designed to keep death away. Orest Mercator's plan just totally turns his whole world upside down, and he needs to know why Orest would want to come so close to death. Obviously, Jack's not one for skydiving or B.A.S.E. jumping. 

How does it feel to see Death in the flesh, come to gather you in? I was scared to the marrow. I was cold and hot, dry and wet, myself and someone else. (33.2)

When Jack peeks out his front door one morning, he sees an old man sitting in his front yard. Jack's been thinking about death so much lately that he actually wonders if Death is an actual person (like the Grim Reaper) who's come to take him away. It turns out the old man is just Babette's dad, but Jack's reaction shows you just how deep his fear of death goes ("to the marrow," in fact).

I found myself saying, "You will, you will. These snakes don't know you find death inconceivable. They don't know you're young and strong and you think death applies to everyone but you. They will bite and you will die." (27.58)

Eventually, Jack gets fed up with Orest Mercator's casual attitude toward death. For Jack, it's necessary for everyone to think about death the same way he does, so he chews out Orest for being dumb. The only way he can make sense of Orest is to think that Orest is an ignorant kid who thinks he'll never die. Jack thinks it's his duty to tell it like it is and get up in Orest's face about the cold reality of death. 

"I hate to be the one who says it, Jack, but there's something that has to be said."

"What?"

"Better you than me." (37.190)

Murray tells it like it is. He's not totally pumped that his friend Jack is dying, but he's definitely relieved that Jack is dying <em>instead of him</em>. For Murray, the most important quality a person can have is honesty. And when it comes to dying, the fact is (according to Murray) that people would always rather watch someone else die than die themselves. 

"In what way is [Wilder] free from limits?"

"He doesn't know he's going to die. He doesn't know death at all. You cherish this simpleton blessing of his, this exemption from harm." (37.129)

Jack and Babette both adore Wilder. They love him especially because the kid is too young to realize that he's going to die someday. In this book, you might even say the main difference between children and adults is that adults know they're going to die, but kids don't. Jack and Babette both envy Wilder's naïveté. 

"That's what it all comes down to in the end," he said. "A person spends his life saying good-bye to other people. How does he say good-bye to himself?" (37.198)

It's not easy to admit that we're going to die. In fact, grappling with the fact of our own mortality might be the core of life, at least according to Murray. We spend our lives watching other people die. We can't watch ourselves die because we're dead at that point, right? That's part of what makes it so hard to admit we're going to die: we can't actually picture being dead.

"It's a way of controlling death. A way of gaining the ultimate upper hand. Be the killer for a change. Let someone else be the dier." (37.147)

How do we get over our fear of death? We could try killing somebody, according to Murray. His logic is this: we spend our whole adult lives cowering in fear of death, but we might feel like we can take control of death if we kill someone else. For Murray the world is divided into killers and diers, and each of us has to choose which one we are. That being said, we don't see Murray running around killing people in this book, so he might just be spitballing on this one. 

"I'm afraid to die," she said. "I think about it all the time. It won't go away." (26.72)

When Babette reveals to Jack that she's terrified of death, Jack is crushed. He always thought <em>he</em> was the one in their relationship who feared death. He thought Babette was his rock. But now it turns out they're the same: just a couple of fifty-somethings who can't stand the thought of dying. 

"How can you be sure it is death you fear? Death is so vague. No one knows what it is, what it feels like or looks like. Maybe you just have a personal problem that surfaces in the form of a great universal subject." (26.80)

Jack doesn't want to think that Babette's fears are connected to something as crude as death. He tries to convince her (and himself) that what she's actually concerned about is her weight, or her hair, or something like that. He does the exact same thing the modern world does, which is try to mask the fear of death as something else (like a fear of being fat, or ugly, or poor).

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