The Fragmented American Family in "White Noise"

About this sample

About this sample


Words: 2800 |

Pages: 6|

14 min read

Published: Jul 27, 2018

Words: 2800|Pages: 6|14 min read

Published: Jul 27, 2018

The family is the strongest where objective reality is most likely to be misinterpreted. (82)

'Why Violent Video Games Shouldn't Be Banned'?

Delillo's portrayal of the American family in his acclaimed novel White Noise is atypical. The narratology changes from a contented American family who initially appear to be close with devoted relationships to each other but later changes to one that is far more fragmented. By looking at Delillo's protagonist, narrator and paternal figure Jack Gladney and observing his relationships to the various members of his family and his work colleagues, one can perhaps come to the assumption that Delillo is restructuring the notion of the American family dream.

The archetypal white-picket-fence, American Dream family is not represented in White Noise; instead Delillo thrives on the Gladneys dysfunctionality. This unusual family is far more disjointed and dysfunctional as the narrative progresses and two different questions arise, firstly, is Delillo challenging the view of the traditional American family or perhaps offering a new, postmodern one. Secondly, what is the function of the fragmented American family? Within this essay I intend to unpack the Gladney family relationships, focusing mainly on the protagonist, and therefore finding solutions to the imposed questions above.

The Gladney family resides in the small university town of Blacksmith where Jack Gladney is the professor and creator of a discipline entitled Hitler studies at the local college, sarcastically named College-on-the-Hill. Arnold Weinstein looks into the idea of the 'middle-American' postmodern family and describes the Gladneys as 'the "new" family' which will have to deal with contemporary domestic issues such as 'children of previous marriages, the presence of the media, the life of the campus, the threats of the environment, the adventures of consumerism' and the 'management of dread.' (Weinstein 1993: 298) Among these postmodern issues listed above which infiltrate the character's lives, Delillo also offers a means of escape to this dilemma where he attempts to reintroduce spirituality (in the form of consumerism) and inverts the parent-child gap.

In the beginning of the novel Jack and Babette Gladney appear to be the ideal American couple; their relationship comes across as one that is agreeable and happy. The couple attempt to nurture and fulfill one other's needs, Jack is continually reassuring Babette and she supports his job. Babette 'gathers and tends the children, teaches a course in an adult education program [and] belongs to a group of volunteers who read to the blind.' (Delillo 1984: 5) Jack describes his loving relationship with Babette as 'a form of self-renewal and a gesture of custodial trust' where love helps them 'develop an identity secure enough to allow it to be placed in another's care and protection.' (Delillo 1984:29) But by reading further into the narrative, one discovers that the couple has no children of their own, in fact, all the children that reside within the Gladney house are from previous marriages from both of the parents. Babette is actually Jack's fifth wife and the children that live under their roof, two are from Babette's previous marriage while the other three are from Jacks.

Ferarro refers to this complicated phenomenon as a 'fearful symmetry' where 'each adult lives with a third or fourth spouse, a son from a previous marriage, a stepson from one of the latest spouse's previous marriages, and a stepdaughter from another of the spouse's previous marriage.' (Ferarro 1991:16) The Gladney marriage is clearly not as coherent as it starts off in the novels beginning. One of the reasons for this could be that White Noise is labeled as a postmodern novel and the notion of the 'American Dream family' is a form of grand narrative that postmodern writers avoid.

Another reason for the fragmentation of the family may be that Delillo is offering a 'new' type of American family as a reflection to what he believed was happening within American culture during the time period. Although the Gladney family are so fragmented to the point that they are individually focused, Delillo definitely portrays the Gladneys as a family who are constantly looking for a connection to one other. A contextual example of this would be their ritualistic Friday night dinner routine where the family unites through the chaos represented on television:

'That night, a Friday, we gathered in front of the set, as was the custom and the rule, with take-out Chinese. There were floods, earthquakes, mud slides... we'd never before been so attentive to our Friday assembly.'

(Delillo 1984: 64)

The family bonds over natural disasters, their collective desensitization towards nature is similar to the actual family structure. Each character is self-concerned with their personal escape and identity.

Unlike Jack who tends does not allow his family to affect him intimately; Babette makes an ongoing effort to keep the family together. An occasion when this happens is in chapter five when she reads all the family horoscopes aloud but Jack avoids listening, as he is obsessing with his own issues and thinking. Delillo writes, 'At breakfast, Babette read all our horoscopes aloud, using her storytelling voice. I tried to listen when she got to mine, although I think I wanted to listen, I think...' (Delillo 1984:18)

Above Babette's entertaining family ideals that she incorporates as a means to keep her family connected, Delillo also emphasizes consumerism as a key point in keeping the family together. Through the purchase and consumption of name-brand products the family is pseudo-connected, similarly to the families represented in television commercials, in a place where prominent issues such as divorce and spirituality have been nonchalantly placed aside. And although buying into the media links the family, it is also their escape. Moses states that 'for Delillo's characters, contemporary American "reality" has become completely mediated and artificial; theirs is a culture of comprehensive and seemingly total representation.' (Moses 1991:64)

Escape through consumerism is connected to the idea of advertising. By buying a specific product a need that has been created by the advertisers is being fulfilled. So instead of the family focusing on real issues such as Jack and Babette's necrophobia, they use consumerism of both media and products as a method of escape.

Both Jack and Babette Gladney are unhealthily plagued a fear of dying which leads to them constantly talking about their own death and the possibilities of who will die first. Death is the ultimate form of escape in the novel. Another possible form of escape that Delillo offers in White Noise - and is compared to the family unit as avoidance for real life - is the notion of crowds. Jack summarizes this point in a lecture to Murray Jay Siskund's class. He emotionally addresses the students by saying: 'Crowds come to form a shield against their own dying. To become a crowd is to keep out death. To break off from the crowd is to risk death as an individual, to face dying alone. Crowds come for this reason above all others. They were there to be a crowd.' (Delillo 1984: 73)

Crowds are therefore in the novel a strategic form of escape where people can look beyond their self-concerns and form a kind of group mentality similar to those of the Nazis. Gladney's affinity with Hitler goes much deeper than just a subject he established at College-on-the-Hill. By looking at the character of Jack Gladney's relationship with Hitler studies from a psychological analysis, it is easy to see how work becomes his mechanism through which he escapes. Hitler and the study of Nazism are Gladney's form of avoidance from his self and his family. Gladney is so immersed in everything related to Hitler that he sometimes cannot relate properly to his personal life. His affinity with Hitler could be metaphorically compared to raising a child. Murray Siskund emphasizes the parent-child relationship that Gladney has with Hitler studies in chapter three, he says:

'You've established a wonderful thing here with Hitler. You created it, you nurtured it, you made it your own. Nobody on any 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... he is now your Hitler. Gladney's Hitler. It must be deeply satisfying for you.'

(Delillo 1984:11)

Gladney's paternal affection towards Hitler studies is often more involved than that of his relationship to his children. Perhaps, in this 'new' postmodern world portrayed by Delillo the relationship between self and work is much stronger than traditional family values. The children that reside under the Gladney roof are all disconnected to their parents on one level, as they are products of broken marriages. [2] Babette is more emotionally connected to the children than Jack. Delillo shows Babette's maternal response to her children - even if they are actually Jack's children - as emotive. This can be observed in chapter five when Jack Gladney admits to Murray Siskund how Babette fell apart when his daughter broke a bone in her hand at camp.

'She fell apart when Steffie called from camp with a broken bone in her hand. We had to drive all night. I found myself on the lumber company road. Babette weeping.' [Jack]

'Her daughter, far away, among strangers, in pain. Who wouldn't?' [Murray]

'Not her daughter. My daughter.'

'Extraordinary. I have to love it.'

(Delillo 1984:20)

The fact that it was Jacks' daughter and not Babette's but she still 'fell-apart' shows either the intense caring her character has or perhaps a lack of strength when it comes to staying emotionally intact. Jack has an interesting, protective relationship with his son Heinrich, from his marriage to Janet Savory. Firstly, his son has an obvious German name unlike the rest of the children and secondly, Gladney is more worried about Heinrich as Gladney thinks that he may attract danger. (Heinrich plays long-distance chess with a prison inmate) Gladney says, '... 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. He seems to bring a danger to him. It collects in the air...' (Delillo 1984:25) Gladney's protectiveness over Heinrich is unassuming but at the same time comforting to him. The unconventional family relationship extends further in chapter seven when Gladney looks for a pornographic magazine so he can read the erotic letters to his wife and Babette, he goes to ask his son for some who tells him to look downstairs. This provides a bizarre tension in the novel, although Jack expresses his affection for his son from a traditional protective perspective, he also looks at him as an adult.

'I put on my bathroom robe and went down the hall to Heinrich's room to find a trashy magazine Babette might read from... Wilder was in there watching Heinrich doing a physics experiment with steel balls and a salad bowl. Heinrich wore a terry cloth robe, a towel around his neck, another towel on his head. He told me to look downstairs.'

(Delillo 1984: 30)

Delillo's is pushing the parent-child relationship to the extreme, a usually comfortable situation where parents and children do not easily (and freely) discuss anything related to intimacy is distorted. Neither Heinrich nor Jack express typical-feelings of embarrassment or awkwardness, only the readers are left befuddled by the situation.

Jacks relationship's with his children, in particular Heinrich, do not fit in with the typical American dream scenario, Delillo's absurd take on Brady Bunch is unconventionally and uncomforting. Jack Gladney does not know that his wife takes pills, only Denise does and what they are. From this we can perceive that Delillo may be presenting an inversion of the normal parent-child relationship. This inverted relationship can be explored by focusing on two segments of the novel: first through the parents' willingness to follow the children's opinions or advice, and second, via the continual insistence of seeing the world in a 'new' way or angle which is from the perspective of a child.

In chapter ten the conversation between Babette and Denise indicates the power of their relationship, it starts with Denise telling her mother that sugarless gum is potentially cancerous. The normal response to a child informing a mother what the correct thing to do would be that the child is reprimanded or dismissed yet Babette responds differently. She grumbles, 'You wanted me to chew sugarless gum, Denise. It was your idea... I'm happy to do it either way... it's totally up to you. Either I chew the gum with sugar and artificial colouring or I chew sugarless and colorless gum that is harmful...' (Delillo 1984:42) Her tantrum-like response is almost child-like. The continue to squabble as followed:

'I'm not a criminal,' Babette said. 'All I want to do is chew a pathetic little tasteless chunk of gum now and then.'

'Well it's not that simple' Denise said.

'It's not a crime either. I chew about two of those little chunks a day.'

'Well you can't anymore.'

'Well I can, Denise. I want to. Chewing happens to relax me. You're making a fuss over nothing...'

'... go ahead and chew. Never mind the warning, I don't care.'

(Delillo 1984:42-3)

Denise and Babette are having a standard parent-child argument except Delillo has altered the parent-child relationship. In theory, it should be Babette who is knowledgeable and chastising Denise and not the other way around. The same situation occurs later in the text when the family discusses geography. (Delillo 1984: 80)

The second matter which I will discuss is 'new' way of looking at the world presented in the novel by Delillo through the voice of Murray Siskund. In most cultures, there's a sentimental and intellectual value attached to the elders in a community. In White Noise, a great emphasis is placed on looking at things from a child's perspective. This point of view concentrates on an innocent, un-opinionated way (without embedded stereotypes and clichés) of looking at family, the media and themselves. Without preconceived notions, the world perhaps from Delillo's postmodern standpoint, then has the ability to offer something more sacred.

This is completely opposite to religious dogmas where the past is a vital connection and represents something sacred.

In the novel, the media plays a large influence on how the characters react towards each other in society and the adults are far more affected by commercialization. Although later in the novel we do see Denise uttering words of consumer culture in her sleep, as if the invariable influence of consumer culture has finally entered her subconscious. Murray Siskund is aware of how damaging powerful media influences (such as television) can be and voices his opinion to Jack Gladney. He says:

'TV is a problem only if you have forgotten how to look and listen... My students and I discuss this all the time. They're beginning to feel they ought to turn against the medium, exactly as an earlier generation turned against their parents and their country. I tell them they have to learn to look as children again.'

(Delillo 1984:50)

Television's desensitizing effect on the characters in the story is conceivably one of the things that the postmodern family has to deal with in order to stay together, happily or not. The things that once made up the American dream family have been eroded and replaced with a new, defragmented family where each member is focused on himself or herself yet still protected (or escapes) inside the family unit. An interesting query that comes up is that if the Gladney family were without children, would Jack and Babette still be able to function so adequately.

Delillo answers this with his summary of the family in chapter 17. He answers through the protagonist's thinking:

'The family is the cradle of the world's misinformation. There must be something in family life that generates factual error. Over-closeness, the noise and heat of being. Perhaps something deeper, like the need to survive.' (Delillo 1984:81)

The Gladney family purely survives on the notion that they are a family unit that works. Although, as I have discussed above, each character is far more narcissistic then altruistic, the Gladneys function as the ideal, fragmented, postmodern family with different outcomes. I do not believe that Dellilo is necessarily looking at the decline of the family but rather White Noise is depicting a family focused on survival. The unit functions as an escape to overcoming challenges of the Postmodern world.


Weinstein, Arnold. 1993. Nobody's Home. Speech, Self, and Place in American fiction from Hawthorne to Delillo. Oxford University Press: New York

Ferarro, Thomas J. 1991. 'Whole Families Shopping at Night!' in New Essays on White Noise. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge

Moses, Michael V. 1991 'Lust Removed from Nature' in New Essays on White Noise. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge

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Delillo, Don. 1984. White Noise. Picador, Macmillan Publishers Ltd. Great Britain.

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