Beloved and Charles Bon: Excess and Absence

Posted by Ann Bradley on February 11, 2016 in Ann Bradley, Blog tagged with , , , ,

The hoalg-beloved-jpgrrors that William Faulkner depicts in his novel, Absalom, Absalom! are general, pointing to a the fact that the South is built by the labour and death of women and slaves. This terrible mode of construction haunts the characters of the novel. Morrison’s work illustrates this same awful truth. “Beloved pictures American history as a haunted house, from which slavery’s legacy of grief and horror cannot be exorcised. The United States, as many American Gothic texts argue, is built on economic exploitation and racial terror” (Goddu 63-64). Unlike Absalom, Beloved focuses on the traumatic legacy from the point of view of those who have been enslaved. Sethe as both woman and former slave is the epitome of the oppressed individual that helped to build the very structure which oppresses her. The pain of her past is too much for Sethe. She cannot at first confront the crime she has committed because the enormity and personal nature of the event (the absolute bastardization of motherhood, a motherhood which is denied her as a slave). Despite (or because of) her denial, Sethe is haunted by the literal manifestation of her personal trauma, the ghost of her daughter made corporeal. Just as trauma is, “a history that literally has no place, neither in the past, in which it was not fully experienced, nor in the present, in which its precise images and enactments are not fully understood,” Beloved is looking for a place to exist (Caruth 153). “This place. I was looking for this place I could be in” (Morrison 77): Here, Beloved articulates not only the nature of displaced traumatic events, but the desire for the black population to find a place of belonging.

Like Beloved, Charles Bon of Absalom, Absalom! is a representation of desires. “Charles Bon, who, like the circumstances surrounding his murder, functions as a kind of opening, an absence the text attempts to define […] he is not so much a character in the narrative as he is a focus for the feelings of longing and loss, a register for failed possibilities” (Novak 211). Ellen even, “spoke of Bon as if he were three inanimate objects in one” (Faulkner 75). It is because Charles Bon functions as an object or image for projection that Rosa can be in love with him, though by her own admission she never laid eyes on him, Henry can admire him, Judith can gain her identity by the simple notion that she is widowed even without marrying him. The entire narrative structure of the novel focuses on the murder of a man who is at the very best only semi-substantial. But Charles Bon is really Thomas Sutpen’s failure. He should be the heir to Sutpen’s Hundred, but he holds black blood, so he is useless in Sutpen’s design. While Beloved is a maternal failure, Bon is a paternal one. The nature of those failures is markedly different.

Beloved is made manifest by pain, whereas Charles Bon comes into being as an obstacle to a patriarchal design. In representing the failure of Sutpen himself, and of the masculine South that he signifies, Charles can only bring about more disaster. Both his life and his death are the ultimate unravelling of his father’s goals. Though Beloved is an expression of maternal impossibility for Sethe (and for black women of the day) and though she wreaks havoc on the lives of the inhabitants of 124, her reappearance and subsequent disappearance allow Sethe to begin to come to terms with her own self-worth. It is as though by nature of being a maternal haunting, Beloved can be a constructive existence, healing wounds by allowing the mother figures of the community to come to terms with their own denied maternity. Beloved heals by permitting people like Denver and Paul D to recognize their own wanting. Paul D says of Beloved, “She is doing it to me. Fixing me. Sethe, she’s fixing me and I can’t break it” (149). Sethe is described throughout the novel as having too much love for her children and Beloved is a manifestation of that excess. Her actions are consumptive, immoderate, but she is still a reflection of her mother’s love.

Conversely, as a paternal trauma, Charles Bon is left without the ability to heal the wounds inflicted on and by the South. His death is not a result of love. His father did not act out of fear for his son’s future, but out of fear for the fate of his own designs. There can be no healing because the male (Southern) trauma comes from a different place than the maternal trauma of Beloved: a place of pride. Charles is the ghost which represents absence—the absence of redeeming love. His existence is therefore in direct opposition to that of Beloved, not an excess of love, but a deficit. Judith does not, cannot weep at his demise. Thomas Sutpen cannot tolerate the existence of an heir who has black blood. Sutpen’s reaction to his son is a poignant illustration of paternal abandonment throughout the novel. Bon’s presence as absence rather than excess denies him the ability to reconcile the traumatic pasts of the South. This in turn impacts the ending of the novel. Next week I will examine the power of the haunting ghost to bring together the community, and the consequences for future generations if the ghost cannot be settled.


Caruth, Cathy. “Trauma and Experience.” Introduction. Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1995. Print.

Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom! London: Vintage, 1995. Print.

Goddu, Teresa. “American Gothic.” The Routledge Companion to Gothic. Ed. Emma McEvoy, Catherine Spooner. London: Routledge, 2007. 63-72. Print.

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. London: Vintage Classic, 2007. Print.

N.d. NY Daily News. Picture. Web. 11 Feb. 2016.

Novak, Phillip. “Signifying Silences: Morrison’s Soundings in the Faulknerian Void.”Unflinching Gaze: Morrison and Faulkner Re-envisioned. Ed. Carol A. Kolmerten,      Stephen M. Ross, and Judith Bryant Wittenberg. Jackson: U of Mississippi, 1997. 199-216. Print.

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