The Gilded Six-Bits

by Zora Neale Hurston

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Why is Zora Neale Hurston's story called "The Gilded Six-Bits"?

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Missie May and Joe share a real and true happiness together, symbolized by the cheerfulness of their simple home. A "mess of homey flowers" is "planted without a plan" out front, and they bloom "cheerily from the helter-skelter places." Everything is scrubbed clean and white, and even the yard is raked to make a pretty pattern. The newspaper is cut with a "fancy edge on the kitchen shelves." When Joe gets home from work, he "chunks" his money through the open front door in what seems to be a family ritual; he enters the doorway, and Missie May tackles him and reaches into all of his pockets to find the treats he's hidden away there. She says to him, playfully, "Nobody ain't gointer be chunkin' money at me and Ah not do 'em nothin'." This line actually seems to foreshadow Missie May's future infidelity to Joe when Otis Slemmons offers her some of his gold. She has said, all along, that she wants Joe to have some gold too and that "it'd look a whole heap better" on him than it does on Slemmons. Joe, however, says that he is "satisfied de way" he is, as long as he is married to Missie May. For him, "all, everything, was right" with the world as long as he can come home to his clean house and his pretty wife. Joe keeps the so-called gold coin that Missie May was supposed to get from Slemmons, evidently realizing that it is only a gilded six-bit coin. It seems to represent Missie May's failure to understand that her love with Joe is more valuable than any money could ever make it, that he is happy just to be with her and needs nothing else. She sees gold as valuable, when what is really valuable is her relationship. The figurative shadow of the coin serves as a lesson to her so that she can achieve the same level of appreciation for Joe and what they have as what he has always had. This lesson seems to be the purpose of the story, and so this is why Hurston might have decided to title it "The Gilded Six-Bits."

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The title refers to the gold-plated quarter and fifty cent piece the con man Slemmons says is "gold money," or ten and five dollar gold coins. Hurston uses them in the title to reinforce a central theme, which has to do with faithfulness. The coins are symbolic of Missy May's infidelity.

Another way of thinking about the title is to consider the importance of money in the story. The story begins as a description of Joe and Missy May's happy home. Although they are not rich, it is clear that Missy May takes great pride in her role as homemaker and is devoted to Joe. Their Saturday ritual, in which Joe throws his wages (in for form of silver dollars) at their front door, is an example of their marital bliss, but also of the relative unimportance of money to their happiness.

It's hard to say what Missy May's motivations for sleeping with Slemmons are. She claims that she did it because he promised to give her what she thought was the ten dollar gold piece on his watch chain, but perhaps more telling is her admission that Slemmons "jes' kept on after me," suggesting that her resolve was not that great to begin with. While there is nothing in the story to suggest that Missy May is not in love with her husband, or that these two attractive young people have anything other than an active and happy sex life, the fact is that Joe does find them in bed together. Missy May's explanation about the money, for Joe at least, is unsatisfactory. It takes many months (and the birth of a child) for the two to reconcile. The story ends with Joe using the gilded fifty cent piece to buy candy kisses for his wife and new son. Spending this money can be seen as a form of closure, and a sign that Joe has moved on.

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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.”

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