Existentialism in White Noise and Ulysses: Analytical Essay

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The order of evacuation by the authorities demonstrates the intensity of the danger, and the information Heinrich provides, as ambiguous as it is, further questions the sense of living. The cloud, a by-product of a consumer product designed to remove the discomforts of nature from our world, is a literalized culmination of the various insidious waves and radiation that Heinrich informs his family are killing the Gladney’s every day. The invisible killers have materialized in the form of the cloud.

The cloud’s toxicity and its ability to create fear and panic in the novel’s characters seem to represent what Buell refers to as “toxic discourse,” which he says “can be sweepingly defined as expressed anxiety arising from perceived threat of environmental hazard due to chemical modification by human agency” (31).

Jack describes the evacuation as a religious journey. Jack sees the event in almost biblical proportions, a mass exodus of people from the Holy Land. Not only does his description invoke epic imagery of “doom and ruin,” but the image of the cloud, surrounded and illuminated by police helicopters invokes the type of “gothification” that Buell names: “The enormous dark mass moved like some death ship in a Norse legend, escorted across the night by armored creatures with spiral wings” (127). Here, the cloud invokes images of gothic beasts waiting to descend upon him.

The death threat of airborne toxic event demonstrates a postmodern perspective of death, a perspective that separates death from the self. After being exposed to Nyodene D, Gladney goes to the SIMUVAC authorities who conduct “a massive data-base tally” in which they put information about Gladney into a computer. The computer “comes back pulsing stars” and the SIMUVAC man explains, “this doesn’t mean anything is going to happen to you as such, at least not today or tomorrow. It just means you are the sum total of your data. No man escapes that” (141). Despite the ambiguous results, Gladney interprets the data to mean “death has entered,” and says,

It is when death is rendered graphically, is televised so to speak, that you sense an eerie separation between your condition and yourself. A network of symbols has been introduced, an entire awesome technology has been wrested from the gods. It makes you feel like a stranger in your own dying. (142)

Jack is disturbed by this postmodern sense of death. The fact that death seems to have been reduced to a set of data becomes more insidious and inevitable. Death becomes less a part of the process of living. Death as a sign of Gladney’s struggle against postmodern perceptions of life, the reality of death still exists for him. Exposure to the toxic cloud makes Gladney more aware of the reality and inevitability of death. The toxicity represents the reality of life and death, what Jack refers to as “seeping” and “falsehearted.”

DeLillo suggests the lasting impact of Nyodene D survives among the children along with the lives. For instance, Jack’s youngest daughter, Steffie distrusts the environment around her. After the second evacuation from the toxic cloud, she refuses to take off her protective mask.

Steffie refuses to take off the mask designed to protect her from the equally invisible dangers of the toxic cloud. Later in the novel, Jack finds her conscientiously participating in the Simuvac procedures, drills performed to practice for another real environmental emergency. DeLillo shows Steffie as a person who thinks of herself at the age of nine, “already a victim, trying to polish her skills.. .deeply imbued with the idea of a sweeping disaster” and Jack wonders, “is this the future she envisioned?” (205). The future of all children at Blacksmith was envisioned through Steffie and Heinrich who participate in drills. The airborne toxic event is not simply dropped into the novel; it forms the characters’ consciousness, feeds into and informs the fear of death.

Lentricchia points and the toxic cloud as “some death ship in a Norse legend, escorted across the night by armored creatures with spiral wings” (127) as evidence of impact of the unreal future and living.

Technological development influenced the children of the novel White Noise. The children relay more on scientific development rather than their family relationships and own consciousness. Fine example for the influence of technology is the conversation between Gladney and his son Heinrich on rainfall. Jack struggled with his son to make him recognize the reality of the rainfall. Heinrich argues with Jack and questions the reality Jack referred as rain. He does not trust the stuff falling from the sky is rain and accuses,

you’re so sure that’s rain. How do you know it’s not sulfuric acid from factories across the river? How do you know it’s not fallout from a war in China? You want an answer here and now. Can you prove, here and now, that this stuff is rain? How do I know that what you call rain is really rain? What is rain anyway?”

In the end, Jack sarcastically responds, “A victory for uncertainty, randomness and chaos. Science’s finest hour”. (WN 24) Jack and his son Heinrich’s discussion on rain demonstrates Gladney’s struggle against the American surroundings that are controlled by the media and argues for evidence rather than accepting the reality.

The power of media even questions the human reality. DeLillo presents a conversation that questions the reality of human senses. It also argues that media overpowers human reality. For instance, Heinrich informs jack, “It’s supposed to rain tonight,” but Gladney replies, “It’s raining now.” The uncertainty on reality becomes an argument between Jack and his son adding,

“The radio said tonight”....

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“Look at the windshield,” I said. “Is that rain or isn’t it?”

“I’m only telling you what they said.”

“Just because it’s on the radio doesn’t mean we have to suspend belief in the

evidence of our senses.”

“Our senses? Our senses are wrong a lot more often than they’re right.”....

As Stephan Dedalus from James Joyce Ulysses question the human reality; Heinrich in White Noise questions the reality of life. Heinrich does not just offer a philosophical questioning of reality; after all, would this be all too new? Doesn’t Stephen Dedalus in “Proteus,” the third chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses, go through a similar questioning of reality when he walks with his eyes closed to test whether his perception of the world is what makes it real? He walks and listens to the “Crush, crack, crick, crick” under his feet telling him that the world is still there. Finally, he commands himself, “open your eyes now. I will. One moment. Has all vanished since?” He opens his eyes and discovers that Sandymountstrand still exists and calms himself: “see now. There all the time without you: and ever shall be, world without end” (Ulysses 37). DeLillo addresses such questions and, like Joyce, affirms the existence of material reality.

Jack attempts to hide the fear of death by creating an image of him as powerful person. He accomplished himself as a powerful person through the role as Chairman of Hitler Studies at the College on the Hill. After heading the department, Jack created a powerful persona to go along with his new position. He changed his name from Jack to J.A.K., gains weight, and dons a pair of glasses “with thick black heavy frames and dark lenses.” Wearing these glasses and a black academic robe gives Jack a sense of power, despite his realization that “I am the false character that follows the name around” (17). Jack believes that the association with Hitler would provide protection from death. He feels that the power and control that Hitler wielded in life will overshadow his own weaknesses and vulnerabilities. The mere thought of Jack lead him not to realise the reality of life in the beginning of the novel.

Another way Jack attempts to stave off death is through consumption. For instance, at the beginning of the novel Jack admits that “the mass and variety of our purchases” brings a feeling of “wellbeing, the security and contentment these products brought to some snug home in our souls” (20). In a desperate attempt to quell his fear of death, Jack enthusiastically engages in his consumer culture and associates himself with all things German.

Reverting to his alternate method of protection, Jack admits, “the encounter put me in the mood to shop.” He proceeds to puzzle and excite his family with his “desire to buy” (83), as if he can gain the power that he just lost through purchasing consumer products. Jack goes on a frenzied shopping spree. As his daughters help him to buy as much as possible, he considers them “guides to endless well-being” (83). As he shops he feels himself beginning “to grow in value and self-regard” (84). Shopping gives Jack a sense of empowerment similar to his dark glasses and academic role. He is able to escape the subjective self. These techniques are thus, to a certain extent, similar to his attempt to murder. Each is an attempt to repress the subjective self in favour of an image of the self as powerful, larger than life.

Next major attempt Jack took to overcome the fear of death was following Siskind advice of murdering Willie Mink also known as Mr.Gray, the man with whom Babette had an illegal affair in order to get the Dylar tablets. Siskind tells Jack, there are two kinds of people in the world. Killers and diers. Most of us are diers. We don’t have the disposition, the rage or whatever it takes to be a killer. We let death happen. We lie down and die. But think what it’s like to be a killer. Think how exciting it is, in theory, to kill a person in direct confrontation. If he dies, you cannot. To kill him is to gain life-credit” (290).

He continues, “the more people you kill, the more credit you store up. It explains any number of massacres, wars, executions” (290). The advice is not only immoral; it is also absurd. Jack follows it anyway. In an attempt to stave off death and to gain power, Jack decides to kill Willie Mink to overcome the fear of death.

Gladney felt that murdering a person gains power over death. He says, “I sensed I was part of a network of structures and channels. I knew the precise nature of events. I was moving closer to things in their actual state as I approached a violence, a smashing intensity” (305). With this violent act Jack thought that he will become something magnificant; he will be a killer. After shooting Mink twice Gladney says, “I tried to see myself from Mink’s viewpoint. Looming, dominant, gaining life-power, storing up life-credit” (312). This figure echoes Siskind’s description of Hitler as one of the “epic men who intimidate and darkly loom” (287). Siskind had told Jack that, “some people are larger than life. Hitler is larger than death” (287). Jack tries to imagine himself more powerful and larger than death, but it does not quite work.

Gladney’s murderous plot is yet another attempt to stave off death. The plan concentrates on images more than strategic details, revealing familiar murder scenes from television and movies. One of the main elements of Jack’s plan is to “walk home in the rain and the fog” (304). He repeats the step of the plan four times. He was so consumed with the image of the walk through the rain and fog that it does not even occur to him. While having nothing to do with the logistics of his plan, the rain and fog will dramatize the image he is creating of himself as a “killer.”

Another important aspect of Jack’s plan was the image of the victim. His first plan is to write “a cryptic suicide note on the full length mirror”(304) with lipstick or crayon. He has no idea if the motel room has a full-length mirror, and for some reason he believes there will be a crayon or lipstick tube lying around the room. This is because the crayoned message will correspond with familiar images of murder scenes. After entering the motel room and seeing Mink, he slightly changes the plan. He says he will “put the gun in his hand to suggest a lonely man’s suicide, write semi-coherent things on the mirror” (306). Jack’s plan also includes the image of his victim as a “lonely man,” half out of his senses. His plan soon changes to “write suicidal cult messages on the mirrors and walls” (309). His final plan is the most elaborate and detail oriented. He decides to , “place the weapon in the victim’s hand to suggest the trite and predictable suicide of a motel recluse, smear crude words on the walls in the victim’s own blood as evidence of his final cult-related frenzy” (311). Jack creates and recreates the plan onslaught of images during the short period that he is in the motel room preparing to kill Mink. Jack’s plan and preparation to murder depicts the varying murder scenes he has seen on television, read in the papers, and heard on the radio. Jack’s murder plan proves that he is highly influenced by media and dependent on media.

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Existentialism in White Noise and Ulysses: Analytical Essay. (2022, September 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 17, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/existentialism-in-white-noise-and-ulysses-analytical-essay/
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