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05. "THE GILDED SIX-BITS" by Zora Neale Hurston
Terms in this set (22)
The story combines...
... realistic and romantic elements: on the one hand, it outlines some of the life conditions of African Americans in the southern states; on the other, it presents the two protagonists as excessively childish and playful in a quasi fairy-tale atmosphere.
The story's main symbols are those related to the theme of reality and illusion that articulates "The Gilded Six-Bits":
- the coin (the serpent in the Garden)
- the candy kisses (opposition between authentic and deceptive)
- the fertilizer plant (the earth/productivity/Joe produces and heirs - Otis has a cold ice-cream parlore)
Like Langston Hughes, Hurston uses the style of...
... folkloric transmission and includes Negro songs, tales, and sayings in her stories. Her African American vernacular is a strategy of ethnic empowerment: black speech is brought to the centre of discourse.
This is a story of...
... love, betrayal and forgiveness.
Summarize the story
"The Gilded Six-Bits" begins with a snapshot of Eatonville and the house where Missie May and Joe live. When we're first introduced to Missie May, she's bathing herself in the tub. She realizes it's getting late and that her husband, Joe will be home soon: "Joe gointer be heah 'fore Ah git mah clothes on if Ah don't make haste." (6) Before she can get her slippers on Joe comes home and they play fight, a ritual that takes place every Saturday.
After some cute roughhousing, Joe cleans up and they sit down for a spread of southern goodies. Joe announces he wants to take Missie out for ice cream, a new place run by a rich, northern African-American man, "Mister Otis D. Slemmons, of spots and places." (35) Like a school kid with a crush, Joe can't stop talking about Slemmons. Joe and Missie go to the ice cream parlor several times and Missie happily plays trophy wife. Unfortunately, the story takes a disastrous turn when Slemmons starts chasing after her, promising money in exchange for sex.
One night after getting off work early, Joe discovers his wife in bed with Slemmons and his happy home turns sour. Joe becomes cold and distant, until he realizes Missie is pregnant. Of course, the question is, who's the daddy? Not until the end do we find out and when we do, we're able to breathe a huge sigh of relief—and so can Joe.
Theme of POVERTY in the story?
Right from the opening paragraph we know that "The Gilded Six-Bits" will focus on a blue collar, African-American community. While Joe and Missie are of the poorer working class, they're certainly not suffering. They've got a house, food, and clothes, and Joe has a full time job at the fertilizer plant. All that they don't have is brought to the forefront with the arrival of Otis Slemmons. He represents a higher class—a more wealthy class—which Joe mistakes for a cooler, whiter, and thus, better class. Joe aspires to be like him, while at first, Missie thinks money isn't going to lead to any happiness.
Theme of MARRIAGE in the story?
The institution of marriage is turned upside down in "The Gilded Six-Bits," but not at first. In the beginning, Missie and Joe seem to have it all—a house, good food, a playful and easy way of interacting with one another. Things become a little off, though, when a newcomer, Slemmons, comes into town. He threatens to ruin everything. Missie sleeps with him in the hopes of getting money just when Joe's ready to start a family. Missie's idea of being a good wife is making her husband happy and she truly believes what he wants is money. Her infidelity tests their marriage, and Hurston tests readers by leading them to question how one must act in a marriage. When a problem arises, do you forgive and grow, or do you call it quits and split?
Theme of BETRAYAL in the story?
Betrayal is almost a character itself in "The Gilded Six Bits," and we don't realize the threat until Slemmons shows up. When Joe catches Missie and Slemmons in his home, the feelings of disloyalty, treachery and disappointment is felt like a hot comb through tangled hair. Betrayal causes Joe to rethink his marriage, to stay away from Missie, and to doubt that the baby she carries is his. Missie May wants to prove her love to Joe but goes about it in a dishonest way.
Theme of REPENTANCE / FORGIVENESS in the story?
In "The Gilded Six Bits," Missie's fall from grace and Joe's eventual forgiveness of her sin (sleeping with Slemmons) adds complex layers to the story. Hurston takes special care not to judge Missie or blame Joe and it's a delicate balance all the while—we never know for sure what's going to happen. As a matter of fact, we'd like to tip our hats to Hurston for her subtlety, for shying away from those predictable Hollywood-esque stories where we know everything's going to be all right from the get go. C'mon, what's the fun in that?
Who is Missie May in the story?
Our first impression of Missie May is anything but innocent:
Her dark-brown skin glistened under the soapsuds that skittered down from her washrag. Her stiff young breasts thrust forward aggressively, like broad-based cones with the tips lacquered in black.
At the start of "The Gilded Six-Bits," Missie is a young, spunky woman who likes fun and games in a marriage and loves her husband, Joe.
Missie is by no means a meek or quiet wife; actually, she's kind of the opposite. When Joe comes home from work she says, "Nobody ain't gointer be chunkin' money at me and Ah not do 'em nothin'," (11) and proceeds to chase him around the yard and house. She enjoys verbal banter and roughhousing and is not afraid to challenge Joe when he tells her she can't do something. The boldness we see in the initial scenes hint at her impulsiveness, a quality that eventually leads to a really, really bad decision.
When Missie meets Slemmons, she doesn't think much of him:
He got a puzzlegut on 'im and he so chuckleheaded he got a pone behind his neck. (40)
But after hearing Joe talk so much about gold, gold, gold, she thinks that maybe she can get some out of him. We're not sure how many times Missie and Slemmons sleep together, but one night Joe finds Slemmons in his home, pants down. Uh-oh. From that point on, Missie is a new woman—repentant, sad, and quiet.
For the rest of the story Missie tries to get things back to normal and holds onto the hope that Joe will forgive her. At one point she actually does leave and plans on not coming back, but she's stopped in her tracks by none other than Joe's mama. Turns out she's still got a bit of her old self left because, "Never would she admit defeat to that woman who prayed for it nightly." (103) Ah, the power of mother-in-laws and pride.
Later, when Missie realizes she's pregnant, she's sure it's Joe's baby and not Slemmons'. Luckily, she's right. Missie gives birth to a healthy boy, the spitting image of Joe. At the end of "The Gilded Six-Bits," Missie May is much happier, and when Joe chucks money at the door she says, "You wait till Ah got mah strength back and Ah'm gointer fix you for dat." (137). Welcome back, Missie!
Who is Joe?
In "The Gilded Six-Bits" we get a pretty positive picture of Joe: he's a hard worker, he supports his wife, and he buys her presents. He even gives her cute compliments, like when they eat sweet potatoes and he says, "Ah don't want you to git no sweeter than whut you is already." (29) Come to think of it...does he have any single friends he can introduce us to?
It seems that all Joe thinks about is his wife—until the day that Otis D. Slemmons comes into town. Joe is temporarily blinded by the golden boy:
Ah know Ah can't hold no light to Otis D. Slemmons. Ah ain't never been nowhere and Ah ain't got nothin' but you. (43)
Otis is the exact opposite of Joe—from the north, a businessman with stylish clothes and lots of women— and hey, let's face it; new is exciting. For a few weeks Joe is obsessed, and wants to go to Slemmons' ice cream parlor so he can show Missie May off.
One fateful night, Joe comes back from work early and his dreams turn into wanting a baby with Missie May:
Creation obsessed him. (65)
He hurries home full of hope and love for the future and his wife. Not so fast, Mr. Joe. Unfortunately, the same night Joe realizes what he really wants out of life is when he catches Missie cheating on him with Slemmons. Joe's ego and feelings are really hurt, but perhaps it's partly his fault; after all, he planted the ideas in Missie's head that he wanted more money, right? Be careful what you wish for...
It takes a few months for Joe to lick his wounds and the situation is further complicated when he learns that Missie's pregnant. Naturally, it's not until she gives birth and his mother assures him that the boy is his can he forgive Missie and move on. At the end of the story he celebrates by going to Orlando to buy presents for his family, and when he's back home he throws silver dollars through the open door of their house. All's well that ends well.
Who is Otis D. Slemmons?
Mister Otis D. Slemmons, of spots and places—Memphis, Chicago, Jacksonville, Philadelphia and so on. (35)
From the minute we meet him, we can tell that Slemmons has an air of importance to him; he's one of those guys every girl wants to be with and every guy wants to be. Joe is enamored with the smart dressing, slang spitting, and seemingly wealthy man:
Wisht Ah had a build on me lak he got. [...] Dat make 'm look lak a rich white man. All rich mens is got some belly on 'em. (41)
Slemmons may have a big belly on him, but he's got a super small conscious. He sleeps with Missie May without a second thought, and he pleads for his life when Joe catches them in the act:
Please, suh, don't kill me. Sixty-two dollars at de sto'. Gold money. (72)
In the end, Slemmons is a good example of why we shouldn't take everyone at face value. Sometimes a gold coin, after all, is just a gilded six-bit, and sometimes people try to appear to be much more than they actually are.
What about Joe's mother?
Although she's a minor character in the story, Joe's mother serves two important purposes.
For starters, she is the motivation for Missie May to change her mind about leaving Joe. She runs into her mother-in-law and decides,
Never would she admit defeat to that woman who prayed for it nightly. (103)
Can't let mommy win, right?
The second purpose she has is to inform Joe that the baby Missie gives birth to is indeed his. And, woohoo, it's a boy! Joe's mother makes only a couple appearances, but each time they're pretty significant in moving the plot forward.
What about the clerk?
Another minor character, the candy store clerk in Orlando still plays a notable role. In his quick, ignorant comment about African Americans, we get a glimpse of racial relations during the 1930s:
"Wisht I could be like these darkies. Laughin' all the time. Nothin' worries 'em." (135)
As. If. Everyone's got something to worry about, and this story proves just that. The clerk is not the most positive character in the story, but his unabashed ignorance is both ironic and important—something Hurston has a knack for.
What is about THE COLOR WHITE in the story?
In literature, the color white is often used to symbolize cleanness and purity. In "The Gilded Six-Bits," this color is first used to describe Joe and Missie's house:
The fence and house were whitewashed. The porch and steps scrubbed white. (2)
Hurston uses white to highlight the newness of their marriage, still unsoiled by jealousy, sickness, adultery or any other sin.
The color white is also used as a symbol of a haven or safe place, a reprieve from the rest of the world—their house. For Joe, it's where he finds his happiness:
That was the best part of life—going home to Missie May. Their whitewashed house, the mock battle on Saturday, the dinner and ice cream parlor afterwards, church on Sunday nights when Missie out dressed any woman in town—all, everything, was right. (64)
Unfortunately for Joe, trouble in paradise lurks on the horizon
Setting of the story?
We don't actually know that we're in Eatonville until the end of the story, but Hurston settles us in with the opening line:
It was a Negro yard around a Negro house in a Negro settlement that looked to the payroll of the G. and G. Fertilizer works for its support. (1)
In the 1930s, there weren't too many all black towns; then again, there weren't too many black female writers, either.
In the story, Eatonville is a small town on the up and up—there's a fertilizer factory where many of the townsmen work, there's a main store, and there's an ice cream parlor. Joe and Missie enjoy their modest life in a small, clean, and neat house; it's where they play together, eat together and sleep together. It's also where Missie abuses Joe's trust.
In a small town like Eatonville, everyone knows everyone, and people like to talk. There are also few places to escape. A great example is when Slemmons is caught by Joe in his bedroom:
Slemmons looked at the window, but it was screened. Joe stood out like a rough-backed mountain between him and the door. Barring him from escape, from sunrise, from life. (73)
Um, claustrophobia much? Eatonville's smallness also plays a role in keeping Missie from leaving Joe. Remember—she runs into his mother on her way out. Imagine that happening somewhere like New York or Los Angeles. In some ways, the small Floridian town is as important as any character is to the story's plot.
Narrator or point of view in the story?
Third Person Omniscient
As with many Hurston stories, the narrator in "The Gilded Six-Bits" is omniscient. How do we know this? The narrator reveals the thoughts of both Missie and Joe, as in the following passage:
Missie knew why she didn't leave Joe. She couldn't. She loved him too much, but she could not understand why Joe didn't leave her. (97)
In this story, the narrator knows everything that's going on and passes on the information to us through thoughts, dialogue and observations.
And, why, you ask, is it important to know this information? Why, empathy, dear shmoopers, empathy. We're going to go out on a limb here and guess that the vast majority of us are not African-Americans who grew up in Eatonville, Florida in the 1930s—you'd have to be going on at least 75 years old, and if you're 75 years old, you probably have a lot of other things to do than check out Shmoop.
By being inside the heads of the characters, we get to know them quite intimately, and get a peek at what life was like in Eatonville back in the day. We know the characters' joys, their pain, and their flaws. Hurston brings her readers into the lives of others to make us realize that we actually have a lot in common. Jealousy? Yep, we've felt that. Mistakes? Sure, we've made a few. Love? Yeah, we want some.
Genre in "The Gilded Six-Bits"?
Drama; African-American Literature
This tale focuses on a young married couple and the insertion of a stranger to that dynamic. On the outside the marriage between Joe and Missie seems ideal, loving and innocent. Joe brings home the bacon and Missie cooks it, but things really start sizzling when a new man, Otis Slemmons, comes into town with a lot of flashy gold and everyone gets caught up in the excitement.
The conflict comes from Joe's admiration of the man and Missie's subsequent attempt to get money from him. Unfortunately, her exchange of goods with Slemmons doesn't work out as planned. Drama is everywhere when Joe finds his wife with Slemmons in his bed, and readers go through the ups and downs of a marriage in peril.
Hurston was also one of the most prominent writers to come out of the Harlem Renaissance, and this story's dialogue is written in the black vernacular—not to mention, almost every character in the story is black. Hurston's works make up one of the pillars of African-American literature, and this story fits right in
Tone in the story?
Hurston's tone is initially one of lightheartedness; there is a happy go-lucky air around Joe and Missie that is often seen in their playful banter. Take it away, Joe:
Nope, sweetenin' is for us menfolks. Y'all pritty lil frail eels don't need nothin' lak dis. You too sweet already. (27)
The couple has fun playing, twisting, tickling and talking with each other. This is the side of a relationship that many people lose or forget about. Hurston takes joy in reveling (for a bit) in their young love without being over the top or corny.
The introduction of Slemmons into the text drastically changes the tone of the story. For the first time we see a superficial side to Joe. He thinks money and power makes a man great, which leads Missie to think if she gets some, Joe will be happier. When Joe catches Missie and Slemmons together, it's as if his world has blown apart:
A howling wind raced across his heart, but underneath its fury he heard his wife sobbing and Slemmons pleading for his life. Offering to buy it with all that he had. (72)
Sounds like a far cry from the sweetness and teasing we saw in him before.
What is about the writing style?
With Hurston, writing style is all about mixing and matching. What do we mean by that? Well, in "The Gilded Six-Bits" there are two different voices. One of the voices is that of the narrator, who tends to be clear, concise and oftentimes poetic:
But there was something happy about the place. The front yard was parted in the middle by a sidewalk from gate to doorstep, a sidewalk edged on either side by quart bottles driven neck down into the ground on a slant. (2)
And the other voice? You could say it's a voice made up of all the characters—Joe, Missie, Slemmons, Joe's mom—and they talk like real people. Hurston goes even further with her dialogue, staying true to the way African Americans speak. Slang is often used, as well as creative, non-dictionary approved spelling. A great example? Missie's compliment for Joe:
"Ah's satisfied wid you jes' lak you is, baby. God took pattern after a pine tree and built you noble. Youse a pritty man, and if Ah knowed any way to make you mo' pritty still Ah'd take and do it." (42)
Our spellcheck is freaking out right now.
What is about the title?
"The Gilded Six-Bits" is a reference to the supposedly gold watch chain that Slemmons wears. What exactly is a gilded six-bit, you ask? Good question. To start, gilded means something overlaid or covered (in this case, the half-dollar) with a thin layer of gold or a gold color. A bit is an amount we don't use anymore, but originally was worth about 12 and a half cents.
In the context of the story, the six-bit represents appearance versus reality, and the danger of getting caught up in material possessions. Slemmons, the guy everyone thinks is so great, turns out to be a fraud and almost ruins Joe and Missie's marriage. Before he came into the scene, they were perfectly content with the little money they had.
The title also brings to mind desire. Hurston puts her critical writer's eye on the desire for money, for things like clothes and jewels, and even the desire by blacks to be white. Judging by the events of the story, desiring that which you don't have is not a very positive thing. The grass is certainly not always greener on the other side.
The ending completes a...
... circular narrative arch in "The Gilded Six-Bits." The story begins with Joe coming home and throwing silver dollars through the door for Missie, and it ends on a similar note:
"Joe Banks, Ah hear you chunkin' money in mah do'way. You wait till Ah got mah strength back and Ah'm gointer fix you for dat." (137)
After dealing with lies and deceit, adultery and betrayal, Missie and Joe are able to move on—thanks to the arrival of a brand new baby boy. How do we know this? We know because in the last scene of the story, Joe comes back with presents for both his wife and son. Oh, and because he throws silver dollars through the open door, just like he used to do. It's a fairytale ending for two people who seem to have been made for each other, and leaves us feeling all warm and fuzzy inside.
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