Missie May and Joe Banks were a happily married couple until the arrival of Otis D. Slemmons. Mr. Slemmons opens an ice cream parlor in their town and Joe takes Missie out for to visit the new establishment. Missie and Joe both are aware of the “richness” that this newcomer displays. He has a mouth full of gold teeth and he wears a gold coins as jewelry; a stick- pin and on his watch. Joe feels insecure because he can’t see himself earning this type of money and Missie wishes she could give this type of gold to Joe. She tries to reassure Joe but he doesn't feel much better about himself.
As the story unfolds, Missie betrays Joe and has sexual relations with Mr. Slemmons. When Joe catches them together Missie fears he will leave her. During a fight with Slemmons Joe ends up grabbing one of the gold coins. Missie tells Joe she is sorry and that she only cheated on him so that she could get gold from Slemmons for him.
Joe stays with Missie, but he leaves the gold piece out to remind her of what has happened. It turns out that the “gold piece” turns out to be no more than a fifty cent piece layered, or gilded with gold on the outside, thus, the title “Gilded Six-Bits.”
The title and the coin are symbolic of the fakeness of Slemmons and what he offered compared to the value of what Joe and Missie had together.
“While Slemmons is richer and more sophisticated than Joe and Missie May, his life lacks the authenticity of theirs. The fake gold piece represents the fake appearances Slemmons presents to the world. In reality, Slemmons has nothing that compares to the happiness that Joe and Missie May share.”