Study Guide

The Gilded Six-Bits Themes

  • Poverty (Class)

    Right from the opening paragraph we know that "The Gilded Six-Bits" will focus on a blue collar, African-American community. While Joe and Missie are of the poorer working class, they're certainly not suffering. They've got a house, food, and clothes, and Joe has a full time job at the fertilizer plant. All that they don't have is brought to the forefront with the arrival of Otis Slemmons. He represents a higher class—a more wealthy class—which Joe mistakes for a cooler, whiter, and thus, better class. Joe aspires to be like him, while at first, Missie thinks money isn't going to lead to any happiness. 

    Questions About Poverty (Class)

    1. At the beginning of the story, how do we know what class Joe and Missie belong to?
    2. How does Missie and Joe's house highlight their economic situation?
    3. Why do you think Joe wants to be like Slemmons? What does he have that Joe doesn't?
    4. What is Hurston trying to warn against when it comes to money and appearances?

    Chew on This

    Living without a lot of money is not an issue until you see someone living with a lot of money.

    For African Americans living in the 1930's, the highest (and ultimately unattainable) class to reach was that of upper-class whites. 

  • Marriage

    The institution of marriage is turned upside down in "The Gilded Six-Bits," but not at first. In the beginning, Missie and Joe seem to have it all—a house, good food, a playful and easy way of interacting with one another. Things become a little off, though, when a newcomer, Slemmons, comes into town. He threatens to ruin everything. Missie sleeps with him in the hopes of getting money just when Joe's ready to start a family. Missie's idea of being a good wife is making her husband happy and she truly believes what he wants is money. Her infidelity tests their marriage, and Hurston tests readers by leading them to question how one must act in a marriage. When a problem arises, do you forgive and grow, or do you call it quits and split? 

    Questions About Marriage

    1. Why do you think Joe stays with Missie after she cheats on him?
    2. Is it partly Joe's fault that Missie gets with Slemmons? Why or why not?
    3. Do you think their marriage is stronger or weaker because of Missie's infidelity?
    4. Why do you think Hurston chose to have the woman and not the man be unfaithful in the marriage?

    Chew on This

    Infidelity brings Missie and Joe closer together and, ultimately, makes them happier.

    Joe inadvertently encourages Missie to cheat on him with Slemmons.

  • Betrayal

    Betrayal is almost a character itself in "The Gilded Six Bits," and we don't realize the threat until Slemmons shows up. When Joe catches Missie and Slemmons in his home, the feelings of disloyalty, treachery and disappointment is felt like a hot comb through tangled hair. Betrayal causes Joe to rethink his marriage, to stay away from Missie, and to doubt that the baby she carries is his. Missie May wants to prove her love to Joe but goes about it in a dishonest way. 

    Questions About Betrayal

    1. Are you surprised by Missie's betrayal of Joe?
    2. Do you consider Missie a fallen woman or a prostitute? Why or why not?
    3. Are there any clues from the story that Missie will be unfaithful?
    4. Is Missie a bad person? Is she a bad wife? Explain.

    Chew on This

    Hurston makes Missie the adulteress because a cheating male is not as effective or surprising in literature (and life).

    There are no major repercussions to Missie's betrayal; sometimes cheating can lead to good.

  • Repentance/Forgiveness

    In "The Gilded Six Bits," Missie's fall from grace and Joe's eventual forgiveness of her sin (sleeping with Slemmons) adds complex layers to the story. Hurston takes special care not to judge Missie or blame Joe and it's a delicate balance all the while—we never know for sure what's going to happen. As a matter of fact, we'd like to tip our hats to Hurston for her subtlety, for shying away from those predictable Hollywood-esque stories where we know everything's going to be all right from the get go. C'mon, what's the fun in that?

    Questions About Repentance/Forgiveness

    1. Do you believe Missie deserves forgiveness by Joe? Why or why not?
    2. Is Missie really sorry for cheating on Joe? How can you tell? Point out details from the story.
    3. Does Missie's infidelity bring the couple closer together in the end? Or is it her repenting?
    4. If you were in Joe's position, would you be able to trust Missie again? Why do you think he decides to forgive her?

    Chew on This

    Missie does not realize how much she loves Joe until she is with Slemmons.

    If it wasn't for Missie being pregnant, Joe never would have forgiven her.