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...
(The entire section is 1810 words.)