Mrs. Charles Bon

Character Key Number: 
97
Display Name: 
Mrs. Charles Bon
Sort Name: 
Mrs. Charles Bon
Ever Present in Yoknapatawpha?: 
Yes
Biography: 

While almost nothing is certain in Absalom, Absalom!, it is particularly difficult to know how to identify this character. When she first appears in the narrative she is first called "the other woman" (other than Judith, that is) whose photograph Charles Bon is carrying when he is killed (71). Mr. Compson calls her "the octoroon mistress" (75), Bon's "eighth part negro mistress" (80), and "a hereditary negro concubine" (168). Shreve (who as a non-Southerner is unfamiliar with the caste term "white trash," 147) refers to her as "the octoroon" (249, 286). (According to the racial categories once in widespread use, an "octoroon" is someone with seven white and one black great-grandparents.) Most of the published scholarship on the novel follows Mr. Compson and identifies this character as "the octoroon mistress," but that is an interpretive, not to say racially loaded choice. If she and Bon were married, she is his wife. The novel repeatedly refers to a wedding "ceremony," often qualifying that noun with the adjective "morganatic" (80) - usually meaning a marriage between spouses of different social ranks in which no claim can be made on the property or title of the more highly ranked spouse; in the novel, it apparently means a wedding between two different races, which would not have been a legal marriage in Louisiana or Mississippi. But if both Bon and this woman are part 'black,' there's no legal barrier to the marriage, or to granting the woman the title Mrs. Bon, as our representation of her does. Her character is just as problematic as her name. Almost all references to her are attributable to Mr. Compson. His description of her probably tells us more about him than about her, given the extent to which he relies on stereotypical associations of her 'blackness' with the trope of the tragic mulatto and the sexualized black body. Mr. Compson has never seen her, but says she has "a face like a tragic magnolia, the eternal female, the eternal Who-suffers" (91); her "white blood" gives "the shape and pigment to what the white man calls beauty," while her blackness links her to "the hot equatorial groin of the world" that pre-dates "that white one of ours" (92). Mrs. Bon does come to Yoknapatawpha once, at Judith's invitation. The description of her during her visit to Bon's grave is also provided by Mr. Compson, who calls her "the magnolia-faced woman a little plumper now, a woman created by and for darkness" (157). Not even the photograph of her and their son that Bon carries is described in any detail. Shreve says he substituted it for Judith's as a signal to the white woman that "I was no good" (287), another interpretive act. Like the phrase "octoroon mistress," however, that is by no means the only way to understand her or that photograph in the larger contexts - narrative or racial - of the story that the novel tells.