Essays and Criticism
The Significance of Gender Roles and Economic Power in Hurston's Story
Hurston begins her 1933 short story ‘‘The Gilded Six-Bits’’ with a scene celebrating the domestic bliss of a newlywed couple. She virtually leads readers by the hand up the path to the modest but cozy house, offering them an intimate glimpse into the couple's marital harmony. As the story opens, Missie May Banks, the young wife, readies the house and herself for her husband's return. Each Saturday the husband, Joe, announces his homecoming by rolling nine silver dollars across the just-scrubbed threshold. It is the end of his week at the fertilizer plant, and the nine dollars are presumably what is left of his paycheck after he has bought some basic supplies, as well as a few small treats for his wife. With the house in perfect order, Missie May relishes the teasing chase and flirtatious tussle she knows is to come, when she will tackle him and rifle through his pockets for the little gifts he has hidden.
The inclusion of this opening scene is crucial to the story, which goes on to show how the harmonious routine of the Banks household is disrupted by Otis Slemmons and the illusive temptation of his gold. First, the play fight offers a contrast with the real marital trouble to come. Second, it contains subtext about gender roles and economic power that foreshadows this same trouble. For, although Hurston portrays the homecoming ritual as a natural and exuberant expression of young love, it can be understood to be, like Slemmons's seduction scheme, the enactment of an economic exchange. In each exchange it is the man's role to provide money and the woman's role to compensate him for his offerings. The man's status derives from his earning power, while the woman's derives from her feminine charms. The first version of this exchange, taking place within the context of marriage, is depicted as balanced and healthy. The second, taking place outside of marriage, is depicted as exploitative and deceptive. However, close analysis of the opening scene suggests a correspondence between the two scenarios of exchange.
In the course of their affectionate banter that Saturday afternoon, Missie May and Joe have a dialogue about their roles as man and woman. Joe delivers the silver dollars to Missie May in a way she pretends to take offense to. ‘‘‘Who dat chunkin’ money in mah do'way?’ she asks, spotting him hiding in the yard and then chasing him into the house. ‘Nobody ain't gointer be chunkin money at me and Ah not do'em nothin,’ she shouted in mock anger.’’ While Joe is really handing over his hard-earned salary to his wife for the maintenance of their household, the assumption behind Missie May's mock anger may be the fact that to throw money at a woman is to call in question her sexual reputation, implying that she can be bought. This foreshadows her acceptance of Slemmons' s offer of gold for sex. Later, after Joe catches them together, she must sincerely wonder if her husband thinks he can buy her like a prostitute when he leaves Slemmons's gold trinket under her pillow after they have sex. But, at the story's happy opening, such an unseemly implication is cause for jest between husband and wife, and also may add a kind of illicit excitement to their domestic routine.
After Missie May pretends to take offense at the coins, she goes on the offensive, rifling through Joe's pockets for gifts. She insists that he ‘‘gimme whateve’ it is good you got in yo’ pocket. Turn it go Joe, do Ah'll tear yo’ clothes.’’ Though Joe has hidden the presents to elicit just such a response, he pretends to resist, and telling her, ‘‘Move yo’ hand. Woman ain't got no business in man's clothes nohow.’’ Joe really wants her to search his pockets, not only so she will find the gifts he has bought for her, but also because it gives her an excuse to grope him and possibly tear his clothes. The scene combines a dynamic of economic exchange with a strongly sexual connotation. This is another instance of foreshadowing—Slemmons also lures her into having sexual contact with the promise of gifts. As the couple scuffles, Joe tells Missie May that, should she tear his clothes, ‘‘you de one dat pushes de needles round heah,’’ reminding her that it is her job as his wife to mend his clothes. In the context of marriage, sexual innuendo easily turns into teasing about household chores.
Thus, the mock battle and flirtatious banter of the opening scene not...
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The Pastoral and the Picaresque in Zora Neale Hurston's ‘‘The Gilded Six-Bits’’
The history of a people, recorded through folklore, reveals unique, significant, complex, and even virtuous behavior patterns of a culture. This kind of history is one of the contributions of Zora Neale Hurston anthropologist and folklorist, and includes literature reflecting the pastoral and the picaresque. It also includes literature which maintains readability, relevance, and its rightful position among belles lettres. Characteristic of such history is Zora Neale Hurston's ‘‘The Gilded Six-Bits.’’
The term pastoral embodies many characteristics, the first of which is a ‘‘contrast between two worlds—one identified with rural peace and simplicity—the other with power and sophistication.’’ This contrast pervades the story. While details of the story will be used later to indicate other pastoral qualities, an initial discussion of this characteristic is appropriate here for its overshadowing effect.
According to Robert E. Hemenway, ‘‘The Gilded Six-Bits’’ is an ‘‘ironic account of infidelity and its human effects.’’ A young Southern, unsuspecting wife, anxious to earn a ‘‘gold coin,’’ is seduced by an aggressive, pretentious, smooth-talking, city entrepreneur from Chicago who flaunts his superficial possessions and his dalliance with women. Missie May, the wife and central figure in the work, represents the simple and peaceful.
Hurston's three principal characters, Missie May, Otis D. Slemmons, and Joe, approach life variously. Joe, the husband of Missie May, represents the simple and the peaceful. Otis D. Slemmons, the city entrepreneur, symbolizes the powerful and sophisticated. While Joe is seemingly momentarily concerned with the interest that Missie May seems to have in Slemmons, and while Missie May is hopeful that she and Joe ‘‘will find’’ some gold, Missie May engages in an affair with Slemmons and is discovered by her husband in the process. The fleeting appeal of the city life is in contrast to the already pleasant security of rural life. Missie May hopefully tells Joe, ‘‘Us might find some gold long de road some time. Us could.’’
The simple life is exalted by Hurston when she gives significance not to the gilded coins but to the simple, natural entities of the earth. As Missie May weeps in Joe's arms over her act of infidelity and her regrets about the act, Hurston writes:
The sun, the hero of everyday, the impersonal old man that beams as brightly on death as on birth, came up every morning and raced across the blue dome and dipped into the sea of fire every evening. Water ran down the hills and birds nested. Nature's way of soothing the soul is symbolized and exalted in the sun. Nature tempers disappointments and pain.
The sophisticated city life is depicted with a kind of deceptiveness and shallowness in the conversation between Joe and the store clerk in the candy store in Orlando. When Joe throws the gilded half dollar on the counter, the clerk asks him where he got it, and Joe replies:
Offen a stray nigger dat come through Eatonville. He had it on his watch chain for a charm—goin’ round making out iss gold money. Ha ha! He had a quarter on his tie pin and it wuz all golded up too. Tryin’ to fool people. Makin’ out he so rich and everything. Ha! Ha! Trying to tole off folkses wives from home.
The gilded power and sophistication are elusive; the serenity and security of the simple life are desirable and attainable. The simple life is meaningful to the inhabitant, not to the observer, for as the clerk erroneously sums up Joe's life by saying that ‘‘[n]othin worries 'em,’’ he fails to locate the true pulse of simplicity, serenity, and peace of mind inherent in the rural life of Joe and Missie May. The real pulse of simplicity is feeling—experience—sublimity.
A second characteristic of the pastoral is the presentation of situations of choice. From the time that Missie May meets the city businessman until she succumbs to his advances, she torments herself with thoughts of what life would be like with the glitter and prestige of owning gold coins. Because the reader is allowed to see immediately the temporary shallowness of the gold coins and the boastful talk, ‘‘the simple world is more intrinsically desirable.’’ Missie May's need and desire to return to the simple life afforded by her husband, Joe, is found in the narrator's explanation of Missie May's behavior after her husband told her, ‘‘Missie May, you cry too much. Don't look back lak Lot's wife and turn to salt.’’ The narrator continues, ‘‘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.’’
A third characteristic of the pastoral is the implication that the city (world) has ‘‘illusory, shallow rewards.’’ Slemmons, symbolizing the city with its illusory rewards, is realistically depicted when the narrator describes the response of Missie May when she finds the piece of money under her pillow. The narrator explains:
Alone to herself, she looked at the thing with loathing, but look she must: She took it into her hands with trembling and saw first thing that it was no gold piece. It was a gilded half dollar. Then she knew why Slemmons had forbidden anyone to touch his gold. He trusted village eyes at a distance not to recognize his stick-pin as a gilded quarter, and his watch charm as a four-bit piece.
Next, a manifestation of the pastoral in a literary work is in a peasant's need to be protected from corruption and temptation. Although Missie May is quickly aware of the likelihood of much exaggeration in the statements made by Slemmons, she is naïve and believing when alone with him. At one point, she tells Joe that ‘‘Dat stray nigger jes tell y'all anything and y'all b'lieve it;’’ yet, at another point, after she tells Joe, ‘‘Oh Joe, honey, he said he wuz gointer give me dat gold money and he jus’ kept on after me.’’ Missie May is aware, but she needs the protection of her husband.
The last pastoral quality in Hurston's short story is the revelation of ‘‘fundamental values.’’ This story, while embodying many ideas, embodies best perhaps the idea that infidelity can be a cheap affair which tarnishes a...
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Breaking Out of the Conventions of Dialect: Dunbar and Hurston
Hurston's ‘‘The Gilded Six-Bits’’ (1933) takes us out of the conventional restrictions observed in Dunbar. This transformation is partly due to the shift in perspective: we are inside rather than outside the black community and there is not the same double-conscious concern with an exclusive white audience. Because there are not the same motives of the anti-lynching story or of the tradition of protest literature in general, Hurston can be concerned with the relationship between a man and woman in ‘‘a Negro settlement.’’ She can expand the range beyond ‘‘humor and pathos’’ to a crisis-of-love story; there can be development and recognition, dilemma and resolution, delineated personality.
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