Hurston's tone is initially one of lightheartedness; there is a happy go-lucky air around Joe and Missie that is often seen in their playful banter. Take it away, Joe:
Nope, sweetenin' is for us menfolks. Y'all pritty lil frail eels don't need nothin' lak dis. You too sweet already. (27)
The couple has fun playing, twisting, tickling and talking with each other. This is the side of a relationship that many people lose or forget about. Hurston takes joy in reveling (for a bit) in their young love without being over the top or corny.
The introduction of Slemmons into the text drastically changes the tone of the story. For the first time we see a superficial side to Joe. He thinks money and power makes a man great, which leads Missie to think if she gets some, Joe will be happier. When Joe catches Missie and Slemmons together, it's as if his world has blown apart:
A howling wind raced across his heart, but underneath its fury he heard his wife sobbing and Slemmons pleading for his life. Offering to buy it with all that he had. (72)
Sounds like a far cry from the sweetness and teasing we saw in him before.
This tale focuses on a young married couple and the insertion of a stranger to that dynamic. On the outside the marriage between Joe and Missie seems ideal, loving and innocent. Joe brings home the bacon and Missie cooks it, but things really start sizzling when a new man, Otis Slemmons, comes into town with a lot of flashy gold and everyone gets caught up in the excitement.
The conflict comes from Joe's admiration of the man and Missie's subsequent attempt to get money from him. Unfortunately, her exchange of goods with Slemmons doesn't work out as planned. Drama is everywhere when Joe finds his wife with Slemmons in his bed, and readers go through the ups and downs of a marriage in peril.
Hurston was also one of the most prominent writers to come out of the Harlem Renaissance, and this story's dialogue is written in the black vernacular—not to mention, almost every character in the story is black. Hurston's works make up one of the pillars of African-American literature, and this story fits right in.
"The Gilded Six-Bits" is a reference to the supposedly gold watch chain that Slemmons wears. What exactly is a gilded six-bit, you ask? Good question. To start, gilded means something overlaid or covered (in this case, the half-dollar) with a thin layer of gold or a gold color. A bit is an amount we don't use anymore, but originally was worth about 12 and a half cents.
In the context of the story, the six-bit represents appearance versus reality, and the danger of getting caught up in material possessions. Slemmons, the guy everyone thinks is so great, turns out to be a fraud and almost ruins Joe and Missie's marriage. Before he came into the scene, they were perfectly content with the little money they had.
The title also brings to mind desire. Hurston puts her critical writer's eye on the desire for money, for things like clothes and jewels, and even the desire by blacks to be white. Judging by the events of the story, desiring that which you don't have is not a very positive thing. The grass is certainly not always greener on the other side.
The ending completes a circular narrative arch in "The Gilded Six-Bits." The story begins with Joe coming home and throwing silver dollars through the door for Missie, and it ends on a similar note:
"Joe Banks, Ah hear you chunkin' money in mah do'way. You wait till Ah got mah strength back and Ah'm gointer fix you for dat." (137)
After dealing with lies and deceit, adultery and betrayal, Missie and Joe are able to move on—thanks to the arrival of a brand new baby boy. How do we know this? We know because in the last scene of the story, Joe comes back with presents for both his wife and son. Oh, and because he throws silver dollars through the open door, just like he used to do. It's a fairytale ending for two people who seem to have been made for each other, and leaves us feeling all warm and fuzzy inside.
We don't actually know that we're in Eatonville until the end of the story, but Hurston settles us in with the opening line:
It was 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. (1)
In the 1930s, there weren't too many all black towns; then again, there weren't too many black female writers, either.
In the story, Eatonville is a small town on the up and up—there's a fertilizer factory where many of the townsmen work, there's a main store, and there's an ice cream parlor. Joe and Missie enjoy their modest life in a small, clean, and neat house; it's where they play together, eat together and sleep together. It's also where Missie abuses Joe's trust.
In a small town like Eatonville, everyone knows everyone, and people like to talk. There are also few places to escape. A great example is when Slemmons is caught by Joe in his bedroom:
Slemmons looked at the window, but it was screened. Joe stood out like a rough-backed mountain between him and the door. Barring him from escape, from sunrise, from life. (73)
Um, claustrophobia much? Eatonville's smallness also plays a role in keeping Missie from leaving Joe. Remember—she runs into his mother on her way out. Imagine that happening somewhere like New York or Los Angeles. In some ways, the small Floridian town is as important as any character is to the story's plot.
The toughest thing about "The Gilded Six-Bits" is probably the dialogue (and figuring out what the heck a six-bit is—don't worry, we'll get to that later.) At the heart of the story is the relationship between semi-newlyweds Missie May and Joe and how that relationship changes when a seemingly loaded northerner rolls through Eatonville. We might not always understand what is being said, but with a little help from our friends (the internet and the narrator); most of the story is pure gold.
With Hurston, writing style is all about mixing and matching. What do we mean by that? Well, in "The Gilded Six-Bits" there are two different voices. One of the voices is that of the narrator, who tends to be clear, concise and oftentimes poetic:
But there was something happy about the place. The front yard was parted in the middle by a sidewalk from gate to doorstep, a sidewalk edged on either side by quart bottles driven neck down into the ground on a slant. (2)
And the other voice? You could say it's a voice made up of all the characters—Joe, Missie, Slemmons, Joe's mom—and they talk like real people. Hurston goes even further with her dialogue, staying true to the way African Americans speak. Slang is often used, as well as creative, non-dictionary approved spelling. A great example? Missie's compliment for Joe:
"Ah's satisfied wid you jes' lak you is, baby. God took pattern after a pine tree and built you noble. Youse a pritty man, and if Ah knowed any way to make you mo' pritty still Ah'd take and do it." (42)
Our spellcheck is freaking out right now.
We're first introduced to the gilded six-bits when Joe describes Slemmons to Missie:
"He's got a five-dollar gold piece for a stickpin and he got a ten-dollar gold piece on his watch chain […]." (48)
Impressive, right? Wrong. Soon after pointing him out, Joe catches Slemmons in his house with his wife and then:
Joe found himself alone with Missie May, with the golden watch charm clutched in his left fist. (76)
Funny how quickly things can change.
A few days later, Missie (and readers) realize that the coin, like Slemmons, is not what it seems:
Alone to herself, she looked at the thing with loathing, but look she must. She took it into her hands with trembling and saw first thing that it was no gold piece. It was a gilded half dollar. (101)
This moment is a big reveal; everything that Joe thought about Slemmons, is a lie.
The six-bits is a symbol of deception. It's also used by Hurston as a warning that appearances are not always what they seem and that both Joe and Missie made the mistake of thinking that money leads to happiness. In the end, money almost drove them apart and it takes something non-material (love, a baby) to keep them together. If you're unclear on what exactly a six-bit is, check out this really detailed explanation from a coin collector's magazine—a six bit is equivalent to about 75 cents. Big money, right? Wrong.
In the first scene of "The Gilded Six-Bits," Joe comes home from work and Missie chases after him saying, "Lemme git dat paper sak out yo' pocket. Ah bet it's candy kisses." (15) Indeed, it's a tradition for Joe to bring Missie small gifts on his night off and the sweet treats symbolize the deep love between Missie and Joe.
Up until Missie has an affair with Slemmons, their relationship is smooth and their love has the innocence and deliciousness of two people who have never really fought. It's only when Joe buys Missie kisses at the end of the story that we know that he still loves her:
<em>Gointer buy my wife some good ole lasses kisses wid it. Gimme fifty cents worth of dem candy kisses.</em> (132)
Cavities be damned—love is in the air.
In literature, the color white is often used to symbolize cleanness and purity. In "The Gilded Six-Bits," this color is first used to describe Joe and Missie's house:
<em>The fence and house were whitewashed. The porch and steps scrubbed white.</em> (2)
Hurston uses white to highlight the newness of their marriage, still unsoiled by jealousy, sickness, adultery or any other sin.
The color white is also used as a symbol of a haven or safe place, a reprieve from the rest of the world—their house. For Joe, it's where he finds his happiness:
<em>That was the best part of life—going home to Missie May. Their whitewashed house, the mock battle on Saturday, the dinner and ice cream parlor afterwards, church on Sunday nights when Missie out dressed any woman in town—all, everything, was right.</em> (64)
Unfortunately for Joe, trouble in paradise lurks on the horizon.
When Joe forbids Missie from chopping wood because she's pregnant she asks, "Won't you be glad to have a lil baby chile, Joe?" (109) Why yes, yes he will. The baby boy is undoubtedly a symbol of (re)birth, renewal and second chances.
Missie is saved from further torture and guilt by having Joe's son (as opposed to Slemmons'), and he's able to move on with the help of the new addition to their family. The baby serves as a motivation to stay together, and also a symbol of hope and new beginnings, which we see when Joe goes to Orlando for some shopping:
<em>"Ah got a lil boy chile home now. Tain't a week old yet, but he kin suck a sugar tit and maybe eat one them kisses hisself."</em> (134)
While we definitely wouldn't recommend giving a newborn hard candy, but either way, we're happy that things are working out Joe and Missie in the end.
As with many Hurston stories, the narrator in "The Gilded Six-Bits" is omniscient. How do we know this? The narrator reveals the thoughts of both Missie and Joe, as in the following passage:
Missie knew why she didn't leave Joe. She couldn't. She loved him too much, but she could not understand why Joe didn't leave her. (97)
In this story, the narrator knows everything that's going on and passes on the information to us through thoughts, dialogue and observations.
And, why, you ask, is it important to know this information? Why, empathy, dear shmoopers, empathy. We're going to go out on a limb here and guess that the vast majority of us are not African-Americans who grew up in Eatonville, Florida in the 1930s—you'd have to be going on at least 75 years old, and if you're 75 years old, you probably have a lot of other things to do than check out Shmoop.
By being inside the heads of the characters, we get to know them quite intimately, and get a peek at what life was like in Eatonville back in the day. We know the characters' joys, their pain, and their flaws. Hurston brings her readers into the lives of others to make us realize that we actually have a lot in common. Jealousy? Yep, we've felt that. Mistakes? Sure, we've made a few. Love? Yeah, we want some.
The story opens with a wide-angle lens on an all black town (Eatonville), but it quickly changes scenes to the bedroom, where Missie May is bathing herself. When she hears men's voices outside, she rushes to put on her clothes before her hubby, Joe, comes home from working the nightshift. They play their Saturday game of cat and mouse, wash up and eat dinner together. From what we can tell so far, these two make a darn cute couple and their marriage seems picture perfect.
Joe announces that he wants to take Missie out to the new ice cream parlor in town. This might not seem ominous…but we're sure Joe will come to regret this decision one day soon. The joint is run by Otis D. Slemmons, a cool northern cat with a lot of gold. Joe, for lack of a better word, is smitten and wants to impress the guy. While Missie doesn't get the appeal of Slemmons, she's happy to dress up and have a sugar cone. Complications start to arise when Slemmons takes too much notice of Missie. Who would have known ice cream could be the root of so many problems.
So it probably wasn't the best idea for Joe to bring his cute, perky, young wife around a guy with a big ego and a big mouth. That's just asking for trouble. One day, Joe gets out of work early and comes home to find a bumbling Slemmons with his pants down and Missie in a corner crying. Slemmons begs for his life and offers Joe money. Joe punches Slemmons and tells him to get out of his house. Talk about ice-cream cold.
Alas, there are no more games in Missie and Joe's household, no more silver dollars, and no more molasses kisses. Missie spends her time feeling sad and explains to Joe that, "[…] [Slemmons] said he wuz gointer give me dat gold money and he jes' kept on after me—." (81) Of course, claiming she did it for the money is certainly not the best excuse and Joe keeps his distance until he finds out that Missie is pregnant. The question remains—who is the father?
Lucky for Joe (and Missie) the baby is his. Relieved, Joe goes to Orlando to buy food and treats for his wife and son. By the end of the story, we know everything is going to be all right. How do we know that? Well, not only does Joe buy a ton of candy kisses, he comes home and throws silver dollars at the door for Missie to collect and keep. All's well that ends well, we guess. Who doesn't love a happy ending?