White Noise: Part III - Chapter 31,32,33

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Chapter 31

Jack takes the family out to eat that night, but they do not go into the restaurant, eating in the car instead. There is desultory conversation about how astronauts float and how cold is space. Some of the answers are nonsensical. As usual, Heinrich seems to know more than anyone else.


That week a policeman reported that he saw a corpse thrown from a UFO, and the UFO was seen all over the area.


The children get impatient in the car, so Jack drives home, to more inconsequential conversation about questions to which no one seems to know the correct answers.


That night Jack and Babette drink cocoa together. She says she wishes she had not told him about her condition, because then he would not have told her that he will be the one who dies first. This is the last thing in the world she wants.


Chapter 32

Murray and Jack walk across campus, talking about Jack’s German lessons and offering uncomplimentary views of the teacher, Howard Dunlop. Jack goes to only one more lesson with Dunlop.


One night the asylum for the mentally ill in Blacksmith burns down. Jack and Heinrich get in the car and to watch the building collapse in flames.  Many other fathers and sons are there. They watch as a woman from the asylum walks across the lawn, her nightgown on fire. Four firefighters go to her aid. The smell of burning materials, and the fact that their eyes are starting to burn, changes the mood of the observers. They are reminded of death. Jack and Heinrich hurry home.  They both sit drinking milk, and after Heinrich goes to his room, Jack sits up late thinking of Mr. Gray, which he has been doing a lot of lately. He thinks of Mr. Gray making love to Babette, with Mr. Gray in charge and Babette a passive captive.


Chapter 33

In the middle of the night, Wilder alerts Jack to the fact that someone is sitting in the backyard. It is a white-haired man. Jack is scared, thinking that the man is somehow an emblem of Death, and does not know what to do. He goes to the bathroom and hides. Then he checks on Heinrich and Babette, both of whom are sleeping.  He to the kitchen and then steps outside, where he finds that the man is not Death but Vernon Dickey, his father-in-law. Vernon says he has driven fourteen hours to visit them unannounced. He didn’t want to waken anyone so he sat outside. They go inside and Jack makes coffee. They talk, and Jack mentions that Babette thinks her father, who is a widower, is a danger to himself, to which he replies that he knows a woman who wants to marry him. Babette enters the room, ready to go outside. She is astonished to see her father and wants to know why he didn’t call to let them know he was coming.


Vernon stays with them for a few days. He likes to tease the kids but they are suspicious of him, as they are of all relatives, given that the family histories are so complex.


Jack goes into Denise’s room looking for the Dylar tablets but she catches him and wants to know what Dylar is used for. Jack decides to tell her. She says she put the bottle into the garbage compactor about a week ago.


Late that night, Vernon asks Jack to sit with him in his car. It is an old car, worth very little, but Vernon says he wants Jack to have it. Jack says he does not want it. Then Vernon gives him a handgun, saying that it is only a matter of time before he will need to use it. Jack is bemused, since he does not feel any need to own a gun.


Vernon leaves the next day, leaving Jack with the gun.


Analysis, Chapters 31-33

The conversation the Gladneys have in the car outside the restaurant suggests the ignorance of ordinary people about basic scientific concepts, which in turn  suggests that perhaps people are ill-equipped to live in a world in which science and technology play such a large role. They are at the mercy of technology rather than empowered by it. Here, as so often in this novel, DeLillo conveys a serious point through hilarious dialogue. A key moment is when Denise says to Steffie, “It’s called the sun’s corolla” (253), repeating a word she has heard on television. Steffie replies that she thought Corolla was a car, no doubt having seen a TV advertisement for that model. Although Denise and Steffie are children and cannot be expected to have acquired sophisticated scientific knowledge, the point is that people pick up superficial bits of knowledge from television, without much context in which to understand them, and often merge such facts with other tidbits of unrelated information, also acquired from television, until the result becomes nonsensical. (Another example of this can be found at the beginning of chapter 17.)


Also in chapter 31, the sightings of the UFO reinforce the notion Jack mentioned earlier, in chapter 21, that the outlandish stories reported in the trashy supermarket tabloids may not be so very far from the truth after all. And if they are not in fact truth, they serve a useful function, that of giving hope. As the reports of the UFOs come in, for example, people are excited, hoping that “Some voice or noise would crack open the sky and we would be lifted out of death” (234). As this quotation shows, the theme of death now seems omnipresent.  In these chapters, the theme recurs as Jack and Heinrich watch the burning building, and also when Jack sees the figure sitting outside at night and immediately thinks it is some apparition of Death. 

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