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In the novel White Noise, written by Don DeLillo, the Gladney family often succumbs to the supposed authority and superior knowledge of doctors. The Gladneys are extremely intimidated by the doctors and they feel as though the physicians are all-knowing and hold some kind of dominant power over them. Particularly, Jack is affected by the authority of the doctors after the “airborne toxic event” and his exposure to Nyodene Derivative. Out of the entire Gladney family, Jack shows the worst fear of the doctors and especially a fear of the information they retain. Because of this high authority, the doctors can make Jack feel uneducated and helpless, and feel as though his life hangs on every word the doctor says.
During the scene in which Wilder cries incessantly and for no apparent reason, Jack and Babette decide to bring the crying boy to the doctor’s office in order to find out what could possibly be wrong with him. Just the thought of going to a doctor’s office causes Jack and Babette to panic. Jack and Babette attempt to prepare for the visit and they, “tried to remember what he’d eaten in the last twenty-four hours, anticipated questions the doctor would ask and rehearsed the answers carefully.” (75). Jack says, “It seemed vital to agree on the answers even if we weren’t sure they were correct2E Doctors lose interest in people who contradict each other.” (75). The supposed high authority and omnipotent knowledge of a doctor throughly intimidates the couple. They were willing to go as far as lying to the doctor and risk receiving a false prognosis, if it meant that the doctor would see them as good parents. It seems to Jack and Babette that unless they have their act together and have practiced questions and answers ready for the doctor, that the doctor is probable to dismiss Wilder from his office without a proper diagnosis. It appears they feel as though they have to try and impress the doctor with how organized and together they are when it comes to their family’s health and their children.
The trust in the authority of a medical doctor is shown to overpower the trust within the Gladney family. When Denise, their daughter who reads scholarly medical texts, suggests to give Wilder an aspirin and put him to bed, Jack and Babette disregard her idea and take him to the doctor’s office anyway. Ultimately, Wilder’s physician gives the Gladney family the exact same advice that Denise had previously suggested. When the doctor asks Babette why she didn’t follow Denise’s advice she replies, “She’s a child, not a doctor – that’s why.” (77). Even though Denise’s advice is legitimate and Wilder’s condition was exceptionally trivial, Jack and Babette need to hear the advice from a higher authority before they could put their trust in their daughter’s opinion.
Since Jack and his family put such high authority into the hands of doctors, they feel as though doctors aren’t so-called normal people and should be at the disposal of the public at all times and have all the answers to their patient’s questions. This point is displayed through the actions of Jack and Denise, who call Babette’s doctor, Dr. Hookstratten, at his home after ten o’ clock at night. Jack seems to believe that a powerful doctor should be available all day, and every day to do his job and help concerned patients with their problems. However, Babette’s doctor feels as though Jack’s house call is completely unnecessary and out of line. Jack continues to insult the physician by describing Dylar as, “a small white tablet . . . in an amber bottle” (180). Dr. Hookstratten responds with, “You would describe a tablet as small and white and expect a doctor to respond, at home, after ten at night. Why not tell me it is round? This is crucial to our case.” (180). Here Jack displays his high expectations of a doctor’s knowledge when he expects the doctor to be able to identify the drug off the top of his head and with merely his mundane drug description.
Not only does the Gladney family place a higher authority upon the doctors, the doctors also perceive themselves and want the patients to see them as having a superior authority and knowledge level above that of the common citizen. After his exposure to Nyodene Derivative and his fatal evaluation by SIMUVAC technicians, Jack frequently goes to his local physician, Dr. Chakravarty, for checkups, hoping to find out about the status of his health2E When Dr. Chakravarty tells Jack about his disturbing potassium levels, he talks as if the medical condition is beyond Jack’s comprehension and gives him little to no information about his potassium problem. Could Jack’s condition be so complex that the doctor couldn’t possibly explain it to him in simple terms and stop flaunting his superior knowledge to Jack? The doctor responds to Jack’s questions with such phrases as, “There isn’t time to explain. We have true evaluations and false evaluations. This is all you have to know.” (260). He also replies with the statements, “It could mean nothing, it could mean a very great deal indeed. . . . The less you know the better.” (260). It almost looks as though Dr. Chakravarty isn’t exactly sure what the problem is and doesn’t want Jack to catch onto his lack of medical knowledge. Jack goes to the doctor looking for answers, but leaves with nothing but utter confusion of his condition and with an order to see a second physician.
While Jack is visiting Autumn Harvest Farms, he is put through a series of bodily tests and the results to his tests are available for print out right away. The doctor tells Jack, “I ask questions based on the printout and then you answer to the best of your ability. When we’re all finished, I give you the printout in a sealed envelope and you take it to your doctor for a paid visit.” (277). The simple fact Jack cannot even see his test results immediately demonstrates the authority position that the doctors in White Noise uphold. Jack will probably leave the doctor’s office yearning to know what is going on in his body, but he can’t open the envelope until he brings it to yet another doctor to be analyzed.
Ultimately, that doctor reads into the section of the printout that shows traces of Nyodene Derivative in Jack’s bloodstream. When Jack denies the fact that he has ever heard of the chemical the doctor replies with, “The magnetic scanner says it’s here. I’m looking at the bracketed numbers with little stars.” (279). Also, before Jack leaves the office, the doctor hands him the envelope and reiterates, “Your doctor knows the symbols.” (281). Here Jack is bombarded with the fact his health and chances at death are represented by little symbols and scribbles that he can’t understand even if he wanted to. He gives the doctor authority in this instance simply because he has no other option. Without the help of the doctors, Jack would never be able to understand the symbol jargon and he would never know the expectancy of his death.
Another particularly interesting point is that Dr. Chakravarty originally sent Jack to Autumn Harvest Farms to find out more about his potassium problem. Not only did Autumn Harvest Farms not provide him with more information about his potassium condition, they sent him back to Dr. Chakravarty to analyze his test results. Here the authority of the doctors almost appears to be feigned. It seems that neither doctor can effectively analyze Jack’s data and they keep sending him away for different opinions, hoping the other doctor can figure the results out. Basically, the doctors are giving Jack the runaround and are not providing him with any helpful information.
When it comes to the Gladney family and their attitude concerning authority figures, Jack has the most developed opinion of them all. Jack has an intense fear of being brushed aside and ignored by an authoritative doctor. Jack comments, “This fear has long informed my relationship with doctors, that they would lose interest in me, instruct their receptionists to call other names before mine, take my dying for granted.” (76). His paranoia is centered upon having a doctor make him feel as though his dying is inconsequential or that his health is not a priority. Jack is simply afraid of being rejected by the doctor because he wants conformation that his life, or his death, is important in the eyes of authority. Jack also mentions that, “Once you’re shunted from the older doctor to the younger doctor, it means that you and your disease are second-rate.” (179). He conveys the idea that younger doctor’s “role in life is to treat the established doctor’s rejects.” (179). It’s a distinct message from the older doctor, a.k.a. the boss, that his problems aren’t as important as others. Jack makes it appear as though he believes that getting treatment from the younger doctor is an insult, and basically a slap in the face.
Why is it that the Gladneys shake at the knees when in the presence of the assumed authority of their physicians? Why does Jack bestow all of his faith about his future into someone that is ultimately just another human being? The answers to these questions can be summed up in two words: trust and intimidation. Jack and the Gladneys have little to no medical knowledge so their basic instinct is to put their trust into the hands of those who allegedly possess the necessary experience and expertise. Yet, with all the so-called authority of the doctors in DeLillo’s story of White Noise, not a single problem or sickness is diagnosed or treated.
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