Study Guide

White Noise Youth

By Don DeLillo


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 is only eleven, but she often acts like she's Babette's mother instead of her daughter. Through books, magazines, radio, and TV, she also knows a lot more about certain adult issues than her mother does. For this reason, Denise reverses the normal authority of parent-over-child and spends a lot of this book telling her mom what to do. 

The boy 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)

 Like most young men, Heinrich is moody and doesn't like listening to his dad. But sometimes he'll totally do whatever Jack tells him. It's these obedient times that make Jack suspicious, since it's more normal for a teenage boy to be rebellious. For Jack, total obedience is a sign that something's wrong or that Heinrich is up to something. 

Babette is afraid he will end up in a barricaded room, spraying hundreds of rounds of automatic fire across an empty mall before the SWAT team come for him with their heavy-barreled weapons, their bullhorns and body armor. (6.2)

Heinrich acts a little too old for his age, and Babette takes this as a sign that there's something socially wrong with him. It doesn't help that even at fourteen, Heinrich is going prematurely bald. For someone like Babette, it's important for kids to be kids and parents to be parents. 

He seems to bring danger to him. It collects in the air, follows him from room to room. Babette bakes his favorite cookies. We watch him at his desk, an unpainted table covered with books and magazines. (6.44)

There's something not quite right about Heinrich. Jack wishes he could put his finger on it, but the best he can ever do it describe it in vague terms. It's something "dangerous," he thinks, something that follows Heinrich around all the time. The fact is, though, that Jack just doesn't understand his son. The two of them have completely different values, and Jack doesn't make enough of an effort to see the world through his son's eyes.

Denise watched her mother pull the little cellophane ribbon on a bonus pack of sixteen individually wrapped units of chewing gum. Her eyes narrowed as she turned back to the address books on the kitchen table before her. The eleven-year-old-face was an expert mask of restrained exasperation. (10.2)

Again, we see Denise playing the exasperated mother to Babette. In fact, there aren't many times in this book where Babette acts like a mother. In the world of DeLillo, people might actually become less mature as they grow older. This might be because they spend more time thinking about death and less time thinking about everything else. 

So if you go over there, you'll ruin things by embarrassing him and cramping his style because of the father-son thing. And if you don't go over, he'll never know you saw him in his big moment and he'll think he has to behave in your presence the way he's always behaved […] (21.300)

After the Airborne Toxic Event, Jack sees Heinrich giving a speech to a captivated audience. He wants to show his support for Heinrich, but doesn't want to cramp the boy's style. On the one hand, he wants to give the kid space; on the other hand, he wants to show his support. He doesn't know what's best for his son. It's a dilemma that Jack has a lot of trouble overcoming. 

The infant's brain develops in response to stimuli. We [America] still lead[s] the world in stimuli. (25.73)

Winnie the chemist has found a good reason to be proud to be American: because America bombards people with tons of flashing lights and sounds on a daily basis. According to Winnie, the human brain develops more in youth if it's given a lot of stimulation. That means all those commercials and flashing screens in your life are a good thing. That is, unless it actually turns out that those stimuli are forcing your brain to become numb.

"Do you realize that you are risking death for a couple of lines in a paperback book?"

He looked searchingly at Heinrich, obviously holding the boy responsible for this idiotic line of questioning. (27.48-27.49)

Jack tries to tell Heinrich's friend Orest that he's crazy for wanting to set a world record for sitting in a room full of poisonous snakes. But Orest acts as though Jack's the crazy one for even questioning the importance of setting a world record. This exchange shows that there's a pretty big communication gap between parents like Jack and youths like Orest and Heinrich. For Jack, the main concern of life is to avoid death. For youths like Orest and Heinrich, the point is to do something great with your life, regardless of whether it's dangerous.

I paused, shamed by the passion of my argument. I was surprised to see him look at me with a certain interest, a certain grudging respect. Perhaps the unbecoming force of my outburst brought home to him the gravity of his task, filled him with intimations of an unwieldy fate. (27.59)

Eventually, Jack loses patience with Orest and tells the kid that he's going to die because he's an idiot. At this, Orest seems to hear what he's saying. Jack, though, is embarrassed by how worked up he's gotten. Heinrich and Orest are totally calm, while Jack's acting like a baby. Orest might even agree with Jack by the point, but that doesn't undo the fact that Jack is behaving like an infant in front of these two youths. 

"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)

For Babette and Jack, the baby Wilder is a symbol of comfort to them. They envy the little boy because he's not old enough yet to realize that he's going to die some day. In this sense, Wilder is wiser than Jack and Babette. After all, the parents do everything they can to stop thinking about death, even if it means taking a pill that destroys their brains. 

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