The Silence of God: White Noise
By Saakshi Patel
Death is the most prominent theme in Don DeLillo’s White Noise, manifested in the lives of Jack and Babette, primarily in the form of constant noise in the background. There is always someone humming (DeLillo 27) or the TV is left on with nobody watching (DeLillo 249) and this continuous ‘white’ noise is representative of the couple’s constant thoughts about dying. All the important characters in the book contribute to this noise, with the exception of one – Wilder. Wilder is the youngest child of the Gladney family and does not have the ability to communicate through language as yet. He only cries out his concerns and this is what makes him seem like a regular baby. However, the language used by DeLillo to depict Wilder and how he appears in the eyes of his family indicates quite the opposite. The Gladney family members always please Wilder, keep him occupied and regard him with a sense of awe and respect. This could be because he provides the family with a break from the white noise of death that engulfs them, as he does not speak at all. But, analysing the behaviour of the family and the specific words used to describe him, Wilder can be considered as a kind of god-like figure in the story. His lack of speech is not a disadvantage, but in fact it empowers him because he exerts a special kind of controlling force over his family. If Wilder is viewed as a being who represents a higher power, it may also imply that he can sense danger in the near future. His silence is what makes him a unique character and invites us to consider how DeLillo portrays him as a prophetic figure, and describes the family’s behavioural patterns by using very particularly chosen words and phrases.
Wilder’s age is never explicitly mentioned in the story, but Jack states how “his vocabulary…[was] stalled at twenty-five words” (DeLillo 35, 36) This suggests that he was still very young because he had not learned many words yet and could not speak. His family is always fawning over him and trying to please him, no matter how little sense it makes. For instance, Jack discusses how Babette “plays word games with Wilder” (DeLillo 15) which is a futile practice because neither does Wilder have a significant vocabulary nor can he speak. Therefore, it comes across as nothing more than something that will entertain rather than educate him. The fact that he does not know how to speak a language puts him in a position of power, because no time goes by without someone paying attention to him. Wilder evokes certain feelings in his parents which would be absent without him. Babette “made faces of delight, happy outlandish masks, watching him approach” (DeLillo 34), a behaviour which is very rare for a character who is usually pondering over death. Wilder has a similar effect on Jack when he “sat a while longer, watching… Wilder [sleep], feeling selfless and spiritually large” and helps to alleviate his pain (DeLillo 155). In times of trouble, one may pray or turn to a supreme being for comfort, because their power has the ability to console and tranquilise those in need. Similarly, Wilder provides a comfort to his parents that nothing else can, likening him to a kind of god.
Not only does Babette carry out actions that indicate she is under his control in a way, but her dialogues also possess a rhythm very similar to a prayer. The burning question, “Where is Wilder?” (DeLillo 6, 39, 114) is repeated throughout the book like an incantation. It can be compared to a prayer because these words are uttered so frequently that it becomes a pattern. The same ritualistic style of speaking takes place when Babette feeds Wilder, trying to entertain and please him by saying, “Yes yes yes” (DeLillo 34, 209, 210). The repetition of these words becomes a ritual, further substantiating the idea that Wilder is a form of god being worshipped.
Wilder has already been established as a child with extraordinary skills to influence those around him. In addition, several instances show that Wilder’s prophetic nature does not stem only from his parent’s responses to him, but also from his own behaviour and physical actions. Wilder can “climb backwards down the attic steps, which were higher than the steps elsewhere in the house” (DeLillo 117), a feat which is seemingly difficult for a child of such a young age. The fact that he can perform such a complex task as opposed to a simple one like talking, shows that he potentially possesses some mystical power that enables him to do so, thus adds to his strangeness and mystifies his family. When they astonishingly see Babette on the TV, everyone is in a frenzy except for Wilder:
Only Wilder remained calm. He watched his mother, spoke to her in half-words, sensible-sounding fragments that were mainly fabricated… Wilder approached the set and touched her body… Denise… turned the volume dial. Nothing happened. There was no sound, no voice, nothing. (DeLillo 105)
Wilder’s “half-words” and “sensible-sounding fragments” come across as gibberish. This can be compared to some kind of magical spell or chant, because his next action has an eerie result. As he touches the TV screen, the sound turns off, inviting one to consider whether Wilder magically transferred some of his silence to the device. It seems more than a simple coincidence that only after muttering the incantation and touching the screen does the sound get muted. This highlights the supernatural side of Wilder, as well as the fact that he is always the one to “[remain] calm” in the chaos. Even when people were being made to evacuate from the barracks and there was pandemonium, “Wilder was dressed, eating a cookie while he waited.” (DeLillo 156) Composure and collectedness may be rare traits for a regular baby, but Wilder proves this assumption wrong by demonstrating his patience and ability, thus making himself a respected figure in the eyes of his family.
The mystery linked to Wilder grows more complex when he breaks his silence to wail and cry for around seven hours for no reason that his parents can figure out (DeLillo 75). The specific words DeLillo uses to describe Wilder’s crying, as well as Jack’s reactions to it are associated with godliness and spirituality:
He was crying out, saying nameless things in a way that touched me with its depth and richness. This was an ancient dirge all the more impressive for its resolute monotony… I found that I did not necessarily wish him to stop. It might not be so terrible, I thought, to have to sit and listen to this a while longer. (DeLillo 78)
Jack analyses his son’s wails here, and tries to find meaning in them. Wilder’s “nameless” words sound like the ‘incantation’ he was reciting before, to the TV screen. His crying is equated to an “ancient dirge”, which literally means it resembled an old funeral song. Thus, the emotions behind Wilder’s “inbred desolation” (DeLillo 77) moves Jack to feel at one with a power he cannot explain. The “depth and richness” of the boy’s wails strongly influence him:
I let it wash over me, like rain in sheets. I entered it, in a sense. I let it fall and tumble across my face and chest. I began to think he had disappeared inside this wailing noise and if I could join him in his lost and suspended place we might together perform some reckless wonder of intelligibility. I let it break across my body… It might be good, it might be strangely soothing… I sat there nodding sagely. (DeLillo 78)
Here one clearly sees Wilder drawing Jack into his wailing. The crying seems to pass on a strange hidden message to Jack, who absorbs the sound and wishes to disappear into it, hoping to “perform some reckless wonder of intelligibility”, hoping that it changes him. The fact that DeLillo constructs his sentences using spiritual terminology like “soothing” and “nodding sagely” indicates that Jack is in a trance, hypnotised and mesmerised by his son. The work the language does in this passage is that it gives the reader the feeling that Jack substitutes this ‘white noise’ for a traditional religion. Jack is depicted as a kind of disciple of Wilder, a supreme being. What is more, Jack even lets Wilder steer (DeLillo 79). This can be interpreted as Jack surrendering himself to the higher power, letting Wilder take control. Furthermore, Jack is not the only one who is fascinated by Wilder:
At the house no one spoke. They all moved quietly from room to room, watching him distantly, with sneaky and respectful looks…They watched him with something like awe…It was as though he’d just returned from a period of wandering in some remote and holy place… we in our ordinary toil can only regard with the mingled reverence… (DeLillo 79)
The specifically chosen words “respectful looks”, “holy place” and “reverence” are clear allusions to how the family views Wilder as a god-like figure. They cannot comprehend him, so they worship him and keep their “[distance]” from his almighty force. The fact that everyone moves sneakily and silently shows that they don’t want to upset him, and possibly that they fear Wilder and what he can do. DeLillo depicts the hierarchy in the family, when he says the “ordinary” people work hard while Wilder has it easy because he has others to look after him, putting him above everyone else. Since Wilder might possess the power to control people, there is a possibility that he can control objects and predict events in the future. Wilder’s crying can be interpreted as a foreshadowing for the plane crash incident, as that takes place suspiciously soon after this event (DeLillo 90, 91). As nothing besides the near plane crash succeeds his crying, it can be perceived as a sign or a kind of warning instead of being bluntly labelled as a coincidence.
Babette and Jack openly confess that “being with Wilder…picks [them] up” (DeLillo 209). They “feel good” when they’re with him, but also acknowledge that “there’s something else about him…something bigger, grander” that they cannot exactly pinpoint (DeLillo 209). This is a reference to something unknown living inside of Wilder that makes him a source of comfort for his parents. Babette confesses how Wilder helps her get by (DeLillo 263) and that she thinks the less he talks, the better it is (DeLillo 254). Wilder’s lack of language-speaking is an advantage to him, a boon, because it empowers him in such a way that his family is mysteriously drawn to him. Murray explains the reason why they’re so attached to Wilder; because “he doesn’t know he’s going to die. He doesn’t know death at all” (DeLillo 289). Jack and Babette are spellbound because he possesses an innocence, a blessing, that they can only dream to have – total oblivion with regards to death. Wilder is above death and is also, in a way, free from its clutches as seen in the last significant scene of the book: the “mystically charged” Wilder (DeLillo 322) races across the highway on his tricycle but miraculously reaches the other side, unscathed. For a young boy to accomplish this dangerous task seems like an odds-defying feat to achieve, because he has no experience or learned skill, and it hints at the possible supernatural qualities that he possesses. Wilder can either be viewed as a blessed being protected by god, or more logically as a manifestation of a higher power.
The claim that Murray makes about Wilder being unaware of death as a phenomenon can be interpreted in an alternate way. Perhaps Wilder does indeed know what death is. Maybe because he can escape death and predict danger in the future, it implies that he is in closer proximity to death and its functions than the people around him. His inexplicable experiences and interactions with death and the supernatural can translate into him having superior knowledge of those forces and of god. It is clear that Wilder represents a divine being, but the idea that he is fully aware of what death is, is debatable. Perhaps Wilder’s crying after he cycles across the highway is a product of his knowledge about death. He knows what death is, he knows that he has just narrowly escaped it, and he now is aware that his death has been indefinitely postponed until another time. His constant wailing for hours symbolises that he can sense the presence of death nearby, with respect to the plane crash instance and the airborne toxic event. His worries continue to be voiced through his shrieks and cries, as DeLillo takes special care to make Wilder a character who stands out because of his silence, thereby showing the power that language or even lack of speech has in the story.