Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
By the time Hurston wrote and published “The Gilded Six-Bits,” she had clearly mastered the short-story genre. This story was her last published short work before she turned to the novel as her preferred genre. Its length, greater than many of her other stories, suggests she was ready to tackle a longer narrative. In this story, Hurston provides an adequate exposition of the facts and then spends most of her time examining the complex realities of the aftermath of the marital betrayal. As usual, she is adept at portraying the emotional responses of both the male and female protagonists, a skill not often recognized by her critics.
As with all of her works, Hurston approaches “The Gilded Six-Bits” with much regard for her setting, her characters, and her subject matter. Therefore, while she foregrounds the black folk, she does so with care and compassion that underscores her ability to portray them in a realistic fashion. Dialect and colorful turns of phrase are used to illuminate character and culture but are never used to condescend to or condemn. Although the events in the story run the gamut from comic to tragic, Hurston uses this range of emotions to further her argument that such responses are human and common, even in the lives of black folk. On another level, the reader can readily ascertain Hurston’s fascination with the culture of black folk, as seen, for example, in Missie May’s adornment of her kitchen and her garden in a way that...
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‘‘The Gilded Six-Bits’’ is set in Eatonville, Florida, which was the first incorporated all-black town in the United States and also Hurston's real-life hometown. Such voluntarily segregated towns, growing out of a post-Civil War phenomenon known as ‘‘race colonies,’’ offered blacks the opportunity for political independence and some measure of freedom from the oppression of the wider racist culture. The area—now part of Orange County, Florida—was developed largely by white Northern veterans of the Civil War, with blacks coming there initially for work opportunities. A few progressive whites sold small parcels of land to African Americans with the purpose of allowing them to build their own, new community. Twenty-seven founders incorporated Eatonville as a town in 1887. It was designed with civic and community principles in mind, with a school and church at the town's symbolic center. Though racial segregation was the norm across the United States, Eatonville was exceptional because it was segregated by the choice of its own citizens, with the intention to empower them. In the words of Hurston biographer Robert Hemenway, Eatonville ‘‘existed not as the ‘black backside’ of a white city, but as a self-governing, all-black town, proud and independent, living refutation of white claims that black inability for self-government necessitated the racist institutions of a Jim Crow South.’’
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Hurston begins the story with description of its setting that uses the same adjective repetitively: ‘‘It was a Negro yard around a Negro house in a Negro settlement.’’ Such deliberate emphasis underscores the ‘blackness’ of the community (which is later named as Eatonville, Hurston's real-life hometown), defining how it is seen from the outside. Once the story gets underway, the characters’ race is not mentioned, though it remains implicitly significant. ‘‘The Gilded Six-Bits’’ takes place in a community that is all black, thus racial difference is not much of an issue—quite an exceptional situation in the United States, especially during the race-conscious 1930s when Hurston wrote. Instead, Hurston addresses the issue of race through celebrating the integrity and cultural richness of the all-black community. Because she often chose such happily segregated settings, Hurston's black literary peers sometimes criticized her for failing to address racism. The issue of the community's insularity is explored in ‘‘The Gilded Six-Bits’’ through the device of a disruptive worldly outsider, Slemmons, who is impressive to Missie May and Joe largely because he is from ‘‘spots and places—Memphis, Chicago, Jacksonville, Philadelphia and so on.’’ Hurston also offers the nearby city of Orlando as a contrast to Eatonville. Joe goes there to shop and chats with a white clerk in...
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Compare and Contrast
- 1930s: The U.S. economy suffers from a crippling economic depression. Older industries, such as the automotive, railroad, steel, textiles, and agriculture, are stagnant. New, service-based industries hold promise for economic development, but low wages and extremely high unemployment delay their growth. The national income is cut in half between the stock market crash (1929) and 1932.
1990s: The country enjoys the longest period of economic growth in history. The Dow Jones Industrial Average breaks the ten-thousand mark for the first time. Unemployment is at a record low. A booming high-tech industry fuels the economy, leading to higher wages and more disposable income. This, in turn, supports a service-based consumer economy. Despite prosperity, consumer debt is at a record high. The average family spends more than it earns in a given year.
- 1930s: The average family income in the United States is in the range of $500 to $1,500 per year. Most families have $20 to $25 per week to meet food, clothing, and housing expenses.
1990s: At the end of the decade, the median family income is approximately $47,000 per year in the United States, leaving just under $4,000 per month for expenses.
- 1930s: Men's roles are more disrupted by the Depression than women's, since men's status as breadwinners is...
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Topics for Further Study
- What are Missie May's motivations for betraying Joe by sleeping with Otis Slemmons? Do you think Joe bears some of the responsibility for her mistake?
- ‘‘The Gilded Six-Bits’’ can be understood as an exploration of different ideas of value. What are some of the different kinds of value that an object or person can have other than monetary value? What, in Hurston's view, is most valuable?
- Hurston is famous for capturing the richness of African-American oral traditions in her writing. Hurston's characters speak in language that is full of metaphors. Identify as many metaphors as you can find in the quoted speech of the characters in ‘‘The Gilded Six-Bits.’’ How do these metaphors relate to the story's larger themes?
- Do some research about all-black towns in the United States. Do you think that they are a good idea? How does Hurston's portrayal of one such community in ‘‘The Gilded Six-Bits’’ influence your opinion?
- The Harlem Renaissance writers who were Hurston's peers often represented Northern cities as places of freedom and the rural South as tied to the oppressive past of slavery. Find some other short stories written by blacks during the Harlem Renaissance and describe their representations of the customs and values of the city versus the country. How do they compare to Hurston's in ‘‘The Gilded Six-Bits’’?
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What Do I Read Next?
- Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), widely considered Hurston's finest work, is a novel concerning the life and loves of woman growing up in an all-black community. It offers an exuberant and affirmative picture of love and self-realization.
- Mules and Men (1935) is a collection of folktales that Hurston recorded from her native town of Eatonville, Florida. She shares them with an insider's appreciation of their social and philosophical messages and a storyteller's flare for language.
- The Blacker the Berry (1929), Wallace Thurman's Harlem Renaissance classic, tells the story of how intra-race color prejudice affects one family.
- The Color Purple (1983), by Alice Walker (an African-American novelist who contributed to Hurston's rediscovery and who was greatly influenced by her writing), portrays a woman overcoming oppression by men and discovering herself in the rural South.
- Paradise (1998), by Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison weaves a rich tapestry of history as she...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Burris, Andrew. Review, reprinted in Zora Neale Hurston: Critical Perspectives, Past and Present, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and K. A. Appiah. Amistad, 1993, pp. 6-8.
Felton, Estelle. Review, reprinted in Zora Neale Hurston: Critical Perspectives, Past and Present, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and K. A. Appiah. Amistad, 1993, pp. 4-5.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. Introduction to Zora Neale Hurston: Critical Perspectives, Past and Present, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and K. A. Appiah. Amistad, 1993.
Greuning, Martha. Review, reprinted in Zora Neale Hurston: Critical Perspectives, Past and Present, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and K. A. Appiah. Amistad, 1993, pp. 3-4.
Hemenway, Robert E. Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography. University of Illinois Press, 1977.
Staples, Brent. ‘‘In Short,’’ in New York Times Book Review, August 11, 1985.
Walker, Alice. Foreword to Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography, by Robert Hemenway. University of Illinois Press, 1977.
Wallace, Margaret. Review, reprinted in Zora Neale Hurston: Critical Perspectives, Past and Present, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and K. A. Appiah. Amistad, 1993, pp. 3-4.
Gates, Jr., Henry Louis, and K. A. Appiah, eds. Zora Neale Hurston:...
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Awkward, Michael, ed. New Essays on “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Boyd, Valerie. Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Scribner, 2003.
Campbell, Josie P. Student Companion to Zora Neale Hurston. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2001.
Croft, Robert W. A Zora Neale Hurston Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002.
Cronin, Gloria L., ed. Critical Essays on Zora Neale Hurston. New York: G. K. Hall, 1998.
Grant, Nathan. Masculinist Impulses: Toomer, Hurston, Black Writing, and Modernity. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2004.
Hemenway, Robert E. Zora Neale Hurston. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977. Reprint. London: Camden Press, 1986.
Hill, Lynda Marion. Social Rituals and the Verbal Art of Zora Neale Hurston. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1996.
Hurston, Lucy Anne. Speak, So You Can Speak Again: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Doubleday, 2004.
Jones, Sharon L. Rereading the Harlem Renaissance: Race, Class, and Gender in the Fiction of Jessie Fauset, Zora Neale Hurston, and Dorothy...
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