The Gilded Six-Bits Summary

Zora Neale Hurston

The Gilded Six-Bits

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The Gilded Six-Bits Summary

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The Gilded Six-Bits is a short story written in 1933 by Zora Neale Hurston, a pre-eminent writer of African-American literature and the Harlem Renaissance. The Gilded Six-Bits helped to push Hurston’s professional development into overdrive, as it became instantly popular among her professors and peers. Hurston is well known for her cultural pride, which shines brightly through her settings, characters, and the language those characters use. This is especially remarkable because at the time of publication, small-town stories, black vernacular, and many of the other tropes Hurston included were unpopular.

The story begins with a description of Eatonville, Florida, Hurston’s home town, as well as the house in which Missie May Banks and her husband Joe live. Missie has cleaned the house from top to bottom, and taken a bath. She is waiting for her husband, Joe, to get home from work on a pay day Saturday. When he arrives, Joe tosses the silver dollars through the open door and hides behind a jasmine bush. This is a ritual for the happy couple, and Missie May playfully chases his around the yard and into the kitchen, pretending to be angry. She goes through his pockets to find the other small treasures her husband has bought for her, including a bag of candy, chewing gum, soap, and a handkerchief.

Missie May cooks dinner as Joe bathes, and with the silver dollars sitting on the table as they eat, Joe tells her to put on some nice clothes. He wants to take her to the new ice cream parlour owned by a rich black man named Otis D. Slemmons. Slemmons is from Chicago and new to town. Joe repeats what he has heard from people within the community, speaking highly of Slemmons’ riches and reputation. Missie May does not seem impressed, and thinks Slemmon must be lying. She sweetly tells Joe that no man can be or look as good as Joe himself does. Joe reciprocates, telling Missie May that he wants to bring her to the ice cream parlour to show off his beautiful wife.

On the way home from the ice cream parlour, Missie May maintains she is not impressed by Slemmons, but is clearly interested in his wealth. Joe says he doesn’t need any gold coins as long as he is her husband.

The couple make a weekly ritual of the ice cream parlour visit, until one day Joe is sent home early from the fertilizer plant he works for. Joe arrives home and finds Slemmons and Missie May in bed together. Joe is livid, and attacks Slemmons before he can run away. In his haste, Slemmons leaves a gold coin behind. Missie May sobs apologies, telling Joe that the only reason she slept with him for his money, which Slemmons offered in return for her body. Toward Missie May, Joe does not show anger, but is cold and distant, telling her not to cry. Missie is convinced that Joe will leave her.

Joe treats the next morning like any other day, asking why Missie May isn’t eating her breakfast. She doesn’t understand why Joe wouldn’t leave her. Days pass, and Joe displays the gold coin everywhere to torture Missie, as a symbol of her infidelity.

Joe comes home with a sore back one day, and asks his wife for a massage. She readily complies, after which they sleep together for the first time in three months. When Joe leaves the next morning, he leaves the gold coin under Missie’s pillow, in another attempt to torment her, by paying for her services. When she looks at the gold coin, she realises it is not solid gold, but only a gilded half-dollar. This reveals that she was right about her initial impressions of Slemmons; he, and his riches, are an enormous lie. She experiences a new wave of guilt and shame from this new information, and puts the coin into Joe’s pants pocket. Missie determines to leave him, until running into Joe’s mother, who had never approved of Missie May for her son. This encounter convinces Missie that she will not be the one to end the marriage, and she returns home.

A few weeks later, after several more massages, Missie May discovers she is pregnant, but Joe does not seem particularly concerned with the parentage of the baby. When the boy is born, Joe’s mother says the boy is the spitting image of Joe, and that Missie May is a good, strong woman. This convinces Joe to accept the child as his own. He is finally happy, and takes the gold coin to the candy store to buy Missie May some chocolates.

Joe finally reinstates the old ritual of tossing the silver coins through the doorway to Missie May, and the couple are able to return to their happy relationship once more.

Significant themes in The Gilded Six-Bits include: appearance versus reality, in the gilded half-dollar as well as several two-faced characters; biblical allusions in reference to adultery; class issues and poverty; the institution of marriage; and betrayal versus forgiveness and repentance. As well, the candy kisses that Joe buys for Missie May on several occasions as well as the color white are noteworthy symbols within the story. The writing style embodies much of what Hurston was to later become known for, including accurate regional dialect and metaphors, and a representation of the common African-American lifestyle.