Living and Dy(lar)ing under the “poisoned sky” in Don DeLillo’s White Noise

Chemical threat looms above the characters in Don DeLillo's White Noise after the Airborne Toxic Event, during which “a dark black breathing thing of smoke” threatens normalcy for the middle-class Gladney family.

Interested in more of my thoughts on White Noise? The following essay was my undergraduate senior thesis about the novel. I can't promise you it's any good, but it's hear if you're interested!


by Sydney Bollinger

I. Chemicals in the Air / Chemicals in the Body

Chemical threat looms above the characters in White Noise after the Airborne Toxic Event, during which “a dark black breathing thing of smoke” threatens normalcy for the middle-class Gladney family (DeLillo 109). DeLillo’s careful construction of this world mirrors our own, and as Jayne Anne Phillips states in a 1985 The New York Times review of the novel, “DeLillo has dealt not so much with character as with culture, survival and the subtle, ever-increasing interdependence between the self and the national and world community.” Truly, as Phillips describes, this novel studies a culture inundated with chemicals, both in the air and the body. In essence, the Airborne Toxic Event changes the lives of the Gladneys: Jack, a professor of Hitler Studies at the local college; his wife Babette, a busybody who may have a drug addiction; and their children. DeLillo, whose novel acts as a warning for future chemical destruction,  “‘never set out to write an apocalyptic novel. It’s [White Noise] about death on the individual level’” (DeLillo qtd. in Phillips). The chemical panic created in the novel does represent a type of apocalypse, though: one where misinformation and lack of information run rampant, thus forming a culture where medical chemical dependency becomes normalized in the throes of the chemical age.