The Gilded Six-Bits

by Zora Neale Hurston

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Student Question

How does the dialogue in "The Gilded Six-Bits" sound and why might the author have written it this way?

Quick answer:

Joe and Missie May are a young African American couple from the South. They aren't rich or well educated. Their frequent usage of the word "ain't," and their improper pronunciation of words clearly reflects where they are said to be from.

Expert Answers

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The dialogue in Zora Neale Hurston's short story, "The Gilded Six-Bits," could be described as being countrified, grammatically incorrect, and full of broken English. To the ear, the characters' speech sounds almost foreign, as we do not often hear people speak in such a way today.

Despite the dialogue not being the best example of how people would typically speak to one another, there are aspects of it that are quite realistic. For example, we sometimes use slang and run words together when we communicate with others, opposed to properly enunciating each and every word. So while the story's dialogue is a strong exaggeration of natural speech, it is realistic in terms of the characters and their personal backgrounds.

The following selection of dialogue is a good example of the aforementioned qualities:

Joe looked down at his own abdomen and said wistfully: "Wisht Ah had a build on me lak he got. He ain't puzzle gutted, honey. He jes' got a corperation. Dat make 'm look lak a rich white man. All rich mens is got some belly on 'em."

"Ah seen de pitchers of Henry Ford and he's a spare-built man and Rockefeller look lak he ain't got but one gut. But Ford and Rockefeller and dis Slemmons and all de rest kin be as many-gutted as dey please, Ah's satisfied wid you jes' lak you is, baby. God took pattern after a pine tree and built you noble. Youse a pretty man, and if Ah knowed any way to make you mo' pretty still Ah'd take it and do it."

Joe reached over gently and toyed with Missie May's ear. "You jes' say dat cause you love me, but Ah know Ah can't hold no light to Otis D. Slemmons. Ah ain't never been nowhere and Ah ain't got nothin' but you."

Joe and Missie May are a young African American couple from the South. They aren't rich or well educated. Their frequent usage of the word "ain't," and their improper pronunciation of words clearly reflects where they are said to be from.

Just as in real life, the way in which someone speaks can tell you a lot about them. For example, accents and dialects can give us hints about someone's origin. Word choice and pronunciation can reveal someone's level of education or socioeconomic status. These truths apply to the characters in "The Gilded Six-Bits" as well.

In search of character authenticity and realism, Hurston found it necessary to give her characters a dialect that was convincing and true to their personal histories. For example, it would not have been realistic for Joe and Missie May to speak in Northern accents considering that they were from rural Florida. Though it is true that not all Floridians speak with strong accents such as Joe and Missie May, those who have lived in rural areas the majority of their lives often do.

Additionally, the use of run-on words and broken English was not uncommon for African Americans in the South during the time that the story takes place. Unfortunately, many of these individuals were quite poor and excluded from proper schooling, which resulted in the prevalence of improper grammar such as that demonstrated by Joe and Minnie May's language.

Though the use of accents and dialects in writing is sometimes criticized as being supportive of stereotyping, it is often an effective way to breathe additional life into the characters of a story. Being able to hear their unique manner of speech can make the story more rich and immersive, which is something Hurston expertly managed in this work.

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