White Noise: Part I - Chapter 17,18,19,20

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Chapter 17

On a family trip to the mall, Denise tries again, unsuccessfully, to find out what medication Babette is taking. In a large hardware store, Jack sees Eric Massingale, who teaches computers at the college. He then goes on a major shopping spree with his family, buying extravagantly anything that catches his fancy. He feels happy, generous and expansive, and buys Christmas gifts for the children. 


Chapter 18

Jack drives to the airport outside Iron City to meet his twelve-year-old daughter, Bee, who is flying in from Washington. But instead of Bee, it is her mother, Tweedy Browner, who show up in the arrivals area. Tweedy says Bee will arrive later. Tweedy has come to spend some time with her before flying to Boston the next day. It turns out that Bee will be flying in from Indonesia, where her stepfather, Malcolm Hunt, is working as a diplomat involved in an anti-communist intelligence operation. As they drive back to Iron City, Jack and Tweedy discuss one of Jack’s other former wives, as well as their own failed marriage to each other, and Tweedy’s current marriage to Malcolm.  Then they return to the airport to meet Bee.  Before Bee’s flight arrives, Jack watches some bedraggled passengers arriving off a flight that had almost had to make a crash landing. The plane had lost power and dropped over twenty thousand feet, causing panic amongst the passengers, who thought a crash was imminent. Then the plane suddenly regained power and landed without anyone being injured. But the passengers are all shaken by their experience.


Bee arrives, and Jack drives her and Tweedy home.


Chapter 19

On Christmas Day, Bee talks to Jack about her mother, saying that Tweedy doesn’t really know who she is and doesn’t have much fun in her life. Bee greatly admires Babette. Two days’ later, Jack takes Bee to the airport; her short stay is over. On his return, Jack stops at a graveyard in Blacksmith and walks around it, reading the names on the headstones. He stands still and listens, hoping that he will feel what he thinks of as the peace of the dead.


Chapter 20

Jack reads the obituaries in the newspaper, noting the ages of the deceased and comparing them to his own age. He wants to believe that there have been some people—he chooses Attila the Hun as an example—who were not afraid of death. But he cannot include himself in that category. He reviews again the discussions he has had with his wife about who will die first. They both hope they will die first, since each would feel lonely and incomplete without the other.


Babette goes to teach her class and Murray comes over to spend some time with the kids, whom he has befriended because they are part of his “investigation into what he called the society of kids” (101). As they go upstairs to watch TV, Jack talks to Heinrich, who lectures him about the need to save time and energy on the smallest routine tasks, which will leave more energy that can be used to live longer. This brings Jack back to his favorite topic, death, and he admits that he does not want to die before  Babette; he is too scared of death. He really wants them both to live forever.


They go upstairs to join Murray and the other children. The television is on and Murray is taking notes. They all get a shock when they see Babette’s face on the screen. Her class was being televised by the local station, and for some reason she had either not known this or not told them about it.


Analysis, Chapters 17-20

As the novel nears the end of Part 1, the theme of the inevitability of death and the universal fear of death becomes steadily more insistent. It can be seen in chapter 18 (the panic of the aircraft passengers who believe they are facing imminent death), in chapter 19 (Jack’s walk around the graveyard), and chapter 20 (Jack’s continual concern about whether he or Babette will die first).  Chapter 17, however, presents an antidote, albeit a temporary one, to that fear, in the otherwise mundane act of shopping in the mall. Jack has earlier lectured about how joining together in a crowd can ward off the fear of death, and this is apparent when Jack has this exhilarating experience going on a shopping spree. This is another example of how the consumer culture, far from being superficial and merely material, can in fact contribute to human well-being in a way that is described in almost transcendental terms. As groups of people join together in this shared experience, they feel more vital, more alive, and the fear of death is temporarily held at bay. The omnipresent white noise becomes almost like a hymn of (temporary) human happiness: “Voices rose ten stories from the gardens and promenades, a roar that echoed and swirled through the vast gallery, mixing with noises from the tiers, with shuffling feet and chiming bells, the hum of escalators, the sound of people eating, the human buzz of some vivid and happy transaction” (84). 

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