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First Person Narration in White Noise by Don DeLillo
This article is part of a series exploring the theme of alienation within contemporary literature. The series focuses not only on the theme itself, but on the way that the author uses perspective, or point of view, to explore, control, and mediate the sense of disconnect at work. To read more about alienation in recent fiction in general, please visit:
Introduction to White Noise
Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise takes the idea of society's intrusion into personal life to an extreme, creating a world in which the constant drone of white noise (consumerism, media, technology, academia) infiltrates every aspect of the characters waking and sleeping lives. In a notable scene, the daughter of the protagonist mumbles “Toyota Corolla, Toyota Celica, Toyota Cressida” in her sleep. Within the world of White Noise, we see the sense of personal alienation expanded to the world at large.
The characters and the society that they inhabit have become so numb that not even the possibility of an impending “airborne toxic event” can shake them from their torpor. Trauma has little relevance here. The news reports of horrible events become only background noise to daily life. In such a world there there is little cause-and-effect, and relationships and interpersonal interactions are stunted and underdeveloped. The world of White Noise consists of a conglomeration of encapsulated bubbles that coexist with one another without really ever interacting in a meaningful manner.
The Need for a Human Voice in All the Noise
Within DeLillo's apocalyptic world, society has become increasingly fragmented, thus creating the need to identify with characters in some way, in some form. There must be some window into this world that makes it accessible; otherwise the reader will be shut out by the ever-present hum of noise that becomes the narration. An omniscient narrator who can inhabit different points of view could never work here, as the narrative craves a unifying thread. Yet the novel is so encapsulated in a world of ideas, that if a narrative persona were to literally spell this thread out, it could become forced, intrusive, or preachy. At the same time, even a close third-person viewpoint still might not be able to cut through the layers of dissociation and commotion.
There is a pressing need to be concretely in the world of the book. Because it is a world encompassing an almost totality of alienation, it calls for a narrative style with less distance, less alienation. DeLillo chooses the perspective of first-person to provide a window into a work that could, like the dream of the daughter, tread a fine line into automation and artificiality. The perspective of first-person is a refreshingly human voice in the overwhelming bombardment of a novel populated with sound. For example, in a characteristic passage DeLillo writes:
The drone of the dense environmental texture. The automatic doors opened and closed, breathing abruptly….The sounds of gliding feet emerged from a dozen other noises, from the sublittoral drone of maintenance systems, from the rustle of newsprint as shoppers scanned their horoscopes in the tabloids up front, from the whispers of elderly women with talcumed faces, from the steady rattle of cars going over a loose manhole cover just outside the entrance. Gliding feet. I heard them clearly, a sad numb shuffle in every aisle.
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The "I" at the end is the only aspect of this mind-numbing passage that connotes any sense of humanity or life. DeLillo presents this steady hum of sound, blurring into an immutable “white noise” as a hallmark of modern society. Yet his choice of a first person protagonist is, as Diane Johnson writes “at least a concession to our old-fashioned wish for heroines and heroes, somebody to stumble through the narrative, thinking the thoughts, experiencing the emotions, more reassuringly human than in satires."