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Catherine Hoffmann, Université du Havre
Catherine Hoffmann est maître de conférences en anglais à l’université du Havre. Elle est membre de l’EA FORELL (Formes et Représentations en Linguistique et Littérature) à l’université de Poitiers, de la British Comparative Literature Association, et de la Société d’Etudes Anglaises Contemporaines (SEAC). Ses recherches portent sur l’approche narratologique et intersémiotique de l’œuvre de l’écrivain anglais Anthony Powell (1905-2000) et d’autres romanciers, principalement britanniques, du XXème siècle. Ses articles ont paru dans Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines (Montpellier), Imaginaires (Presses Universitaires de Reims), New Comparison, La Licorne (Poitiers), aux Presses Universitaires de Rennes, et chez Gérard Montfort.
Narration from beyond: Mary Alice and the justified viewer
The first voice we hear in the pilot episode of Desperate Housewives is that of the female narrator, who introduces herself to the audience in a metaleptic address: “My name is Mary Alice Young. When you read this morning’s paper, you may come across an article about the unusual day I had last week.” The elegant musical voice soon discloses the fact that its owner – the distinguished and serene looking woman on screen – committed suicide a few days before her narration starts. The fictional nature of the series is thus foregrounded from the start, and our ‘vacation from the real world’ may self-consciously begin. Though the narrator’s presence lessens in subsequent seasons, her unmistakable voice with its educated diction and ironic intonations, remains the voice we – listeners as well as viewers – first and last hear in each episode.
Since, previously to her narrating, she was a character – the most desperate of them all – in the diegesis to which her friends still belong, she may be regarded as a homodiegetic narrator. Yet as a dead narrator, she enjoys a position of omniscience not normally available to character-narrators. This privileged position, involving exceptional clarity of vision, ubiquity and mind-reading power, she shares with the audience, though she withholds information about her own past, so that, in this respect, our curiosity mirrors her friends’. Besides, while the conceit seems to imply our watching with Mary Alice as life goes on in Wisteria Lane, she uses past tenses to narrate and comment on what is supposedly happening in the characters’ present, just as traditional heterodiegetic narrators do, in a way that turns grammatical tenses into markers of fictionality rather than temporality.
Mary Alice paradoxical ontological status entails an oscillation in the viewer’s position in relation to the story-world and to storytelling: on the one hand, the intimacy established between narrator and audience by Mary Alice’s voice generates ironic distance from the story-world, encouraged by the interplay of close-ups and narratorial comments; on the other hand, the series’ own commercial survival necessitates the viewer’s immersion in the dramatized events shown on screen.
The central question that this paper will seek to address is whether voice-over narration in Desperate Housewives, beyond its obvious usefulness as a unifying device, is indispensible to our enjoyment of the series, or whether its reflexive nature serves as intellectual justification for our addiction to serial viewing.