White Noise’s Title Meaning Explained
Noah Baumbach‘s film adaptation of Don DeLillo‘s 1985 novel White Noise is an absurdist comedy that explores some of the darker philosophical crises of modern life. The film borrows many of the most gripping lines of dialog from the book while leaving out some of the much more winding grandiloquence that DeLillo weaved throughout its many pages. As such, it’s not hard to interpret the running themes of the film from the characters’ obsession with death to social criticism of contemporary society. After a first watch, however, many viewers might still wonder what exactly DeLillo intended with the abstract title. Here are the layered meanings behind the title White Noise.
Don DeLillo Wanted a Different Name for the Book
Interestingly enough, White Noise was not DeLillo’s first choice. Back in the ’80s, DeLillo attempted to release his novel about humdrum contemporary life under the name “Panasonic” which had to be nixed due to pressure from the company of the same name. In the end, he went with White Noise, but the meaning behind his original title reveals a bit of insight. “Pan-” from the Greek (meaning all) combines with “Sonic” (sound) to encapsulate the writer’s intent to show that the noise of the modern world is everywhere, drowning out the complexity of life, all sound. As a second choice, White Noise grasps much of the same nuanced interpretation. The phrase has come to be defined, according to Merriam-Webster, as, “a constant background noise, especially one that drowns out other sounds.” It’s through this lens that the first and boldest understanding of the title is found. White Noise is the compounding resonance of all the bells and whistles of modern life from media, society, politics, and celebrity, to academia, family, and religion, so thunderous that they overwhelm the self and numb the act of living.
A clear example of this from the film and book is the identities of the two professors who have dedicated their lives to becoming experts on particular historical figures. Prof. Jack Gladney, (played by Adam Driver) is the preeminent historian on all matters related to Adolf Hitler, while Prof. Murray Siskind, (Don Cheadle) strives to be the most distinguished expert on Elvis Presley. Caught within the pressures of the academic world, neither have a sense of self nor an understanding of life beyond the identity of the figures that occupy their obsessions. It is only in the wake of a catastrophe, the airborne toxic event, that cracks begin to appear in the idealized facade of a life dedicated to achieving and maintaining academic status. The fantasy ascribed to them, like the similar fantasy of suburban motherhood that overwhelms Greta Gerwig‘s Babette Gladney, is nothing more than noise. Facing his own mortality after exposure to the toxic clouds, Jack must come to grips with the reality that he has been swept away on a path dedicated to knowledge but lacking in any authentic notion of self.
The Noise of Death
In the book and film, the concept of white noise is also used to describe the unknown nature of death which is focused at the core of Jack and Babette’s living torment. Jack posits, “What if death is nothing but sound?” Babette replies, “Electrical noise.” Continuing his fear-induced babbling, Jack says, “You hear it forever. Sound all around. How awful.” In a final thought, Babette brings it all back to the title by uttering, “Uniform, white.” The two have at this point given themselves over completely to their obsessions with mortality. They believe they suffer from an illness that forces upon them a compulsion to contemplate their own deaths. This spiraling mindset leads Babette to sleep with someone else in order to obtain pills that will numb her mind, but they ultimately cause her to forget moments from the life she is living. Simultaneously, Jack is driven to attempt murder, struck by the idea that taking a life might prolong his own.
The two are so enraptured with fears of death, that the subtlety of the idea of death being like white noise drowning out existence is lost on them. They are, in fact, unable to carry on living a normal life with this never-ending obsession with death fully drowning out their potential of enjoying what life has to offer. If death truly were all around, that one hears forever, then they have brought death into their lives prematurely by contemplating it so. In other words, the fear of their lives ending has ultimately ended their ability to live fully.
“What Does It Mean to Become White?”
A key difference between the 1985 novel and the 2022 film is the race of some of the characters. In the film, several of the cast members are celebrated Black actors, with Cheadle’s role of Prof. Siskind, Elliot Lasher played by André 3000, and Jodie Turner-Smith as Winnie Richards. However, in the book, the main characters are all white which holds the fantasy of white American individualism under the magnifying glass. They all exist within an ignorant fog, able to lose themselves to hypotheticals and existential crises. They have achieved a level of comfort in living that affords them endless time to ponder concepts such as death at length, unaware that it is a privilege to do so in a world where many struggle to sustain the very act of living. Thus, a final meaning of the title White Noise may suggest that at the end of a checkered history dominated by white men like Adolf Hitler, lies loops of messy white-centric turmoil.
The novel takes place within a society where many white Americans have been propelled to a pinnacle standard of living and then exposes nothing more there than an echo chamber of existential dread and fragmented identity. In such a world, Gladney has been able to construct his own identity, but ultimately lost all sense of himself in the process. Death of the individual as tied to the fantasy of white American individualism may, in fact, be at the heart of the book, as proposed by Prof. Tim Engles. After racializing those around him and persisting within a sense of himself as an individual unlocked from the notion of whiteness, Gladney says as he believed he was about to die, “I felt myself getting whiter by the second. What does it mean to become white?”