Zora Neale Hurston’s intention in “The Gilded Six-Bits” is to counter the lingering“happy darky” stereotype by which African Americans were regarded in her time. Specifically, she refutes the clearly condescending attitude of the white store clerk at the end of the story who wants to be like the African Americans, apparently worry-free and always laughing. Such a perception is rendered ridiculous and absurd by Hurston’s story of the internal turmoil caused by an act of marital infidelity and the extraordinary efforts of Joe and Missie May to rekindle their love and save their marriage.
In addition, Hurston’s positioning Joe and Missie May in an edenic setting in the opening of the story, complete with bowers of blooms and glistening cleanliness, only to have Eden invaded and defiled by the serpentlike Otis D. Slemmons makes her message abundantly clear: If it can happen to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, why not to ordinary black people in Eatonville? Hurston advances this idea numerous times by insisting on human sameness even in the face of cultural differences.
Moreover, to make her point, Hurston wants there to be no mistake about the racial identity of her characters or the fact that her black characters’ day-to-day lives are affected only peripherally by whites. Because of this separateness, whites have little real knowledge about black lives that, on a human level, are little different from their own. Hurston would further explore this idea of human sameness in her last novel, Seraph on the Suwanee (1948).
In “The Gilded Six-Bits,” Hurston argues that love has the power to heal all wounds if it is given the opportunity. In the beginning of the story, Joe and Missie May’s love is a strong, youthful one. There is naïveté on both parts, but because their love is real, it is able to withstand the challenge of the defilement by Slemmons. That Joe can laugh at the matter and resume his routine and that Missie May can respond in kind suggests that love does have the power to heal itself if those who express it do so in a genuine manner. Although the earlier innocence is not restored, clearly Joe and Missie May have learned and grown as a result of this ordeal. Also, the baby boy functions as an agent of healing. The baby is something both Joe and Missie May wanted, and he arrives just in time to save a marriage that might have been doomed otherwise.
Appearances and Reality Hurston introduces the theme of appearances and reality in the first lines of the story. On the surface of things, the couple's yard is nothing but a ‘‘Negro yard around a Negro house in a Negro settlement that looked to the payroll of the G and G Fertilizer works for its support.’’ But Hurston goes on to welcome readers inside the couple's home, describing their playful battle and teasing affection. What appears on the outside to be modest and meager is, in fact, rich with love and joy in life.
Hurston makes the converse point through the character of Slemmons. He has seen the world and experienced life more broadly than Missie May and Joe have. He has the appearance of sophistication and riches, represented by the ostentatious gold pieces he wears as jewelry. Despite the fact that they enjoy the simplicity of their life together, Joe and Missie May are taken in by the image that Slemmons projects. The gold money he wears on his jewelry makes a particular impact on the young man and woman who have never seen...
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luxury. It impresses them that he has enough extra money to wear some of it for show. They are naïve in believing that Slemmons is what he appears to be and that he has something that they might want. They eventually discover that the ten-dollar gold piece Slemmons wears on his watch chain is nothing but a fifty-cent piece covered with gold. 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.
Betrayal and Forgiveness The plot of ‘‘The Gilded Six-Bits’’ pivots on Missie May's betrayal of her husband. The reason for her betrayal is complicated. She is deeply in love with Joe, but takes to heart his awe for Slemmons's apparent riches and his comment that ‘‘Ah know Ah can't hold no light to Otis D. Slemmons.’’ Whenshe suspects Slemmons of lying about his status, Joe holds up the gold stickpin and watch chain as evidence that he is as rich as he says he is. And when she says that the gold would look better on Joe, he replies that she's crazy and a poor man like him will never have gold money. Joe claims that he's satisfied with his life as long as he has her, but Missie May has picked up on his longing for Slemmons's wealth and social standing. She enters into a sexual relationship with Slemmons because he offers her gold—the very thing that Joe thinks he will never have. By trying to give Joe gold, she takes away something more precious—his trust in her.
When Joe discovers her with Slemmons, Missie May fears that his love for her died then and there. But Joe's response to her betrayal is ambivalent. He doesn' t reject her, but he doesn' t communicate with her about his feelings either. She takes some comfort in resuming their normal domestic routine, but is troubled by the absence of affection and openness between them. Joe tells Missie May not to dwell on the past, but he reminds her of her betrayal by leaving the gold trinket from Slemmons's watch chain out for her to see. This is the only way Joe communicates with her about her betrayal. When she gives birth to his son—one that clearly resembles him rather than Slemmons—Joe is finally able to put the past behind him. He trades the trinket for molasses kisses. The kisses are a symbol of forgiveness in that they represent the affection that has been lacking. Because they melt in the mouth, they also represent the dissolving away of Joe's grudge.
Love and Passion ‘‘The Gilded Six-Bits’’ is, above all, a love story. Missie May and Joe's love may not seem dramatic from the outside, but they create drama by enacting mock battles that give them an excuse to tease and wrestle with each other. The opening scene, where Missie May receives Joe at the door, has strong erotic elements. The couple's sexuality is represented as positive, open, and playful. The character of Missie May is introduced sitting naked in the bath. When her husband arrives, she chases him, and they fall to the floor together, ‘‘a furious mass of male and female energy.’’ Joe pretends to resist as she searches through his pockets for the little gifts she knows he has brought her, leading her to threaten to tear his clothes off. This healthy, joyful love is thwarted by the appearance of Slemmons who seduces Missie May by promising her the gold she covets out of love of Joe. Missie May's interaction with Slemmons appears to completely lack the eroticism of her relationship with her husband. She sees the affair as a transaction and, perhaps, a sacrifice. By the end of the story, the couple finds a way to heal through the domestic routine they both love, through the sexual passion that they can't repress (‘‘youth triumphed and Missie exulted’’) and, most importantly, through the fruit of that passion, a baby boy.