The Gilded Six-Bits | Study Guide

Zora Neale Hurston

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The Gilded Six-Bits | Plot Summary & Analysis

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Summary

The Play-Fight

In the small town of Eatonville, Florida, is "a Negro yard around a Negro house in a Negro settlement." It is the home of Missie May, a housewife cleaning her well-tended, cozy house and yard while waiting for her husband to come home from work. She finishes her work, takes a bath, and hears her husband begin their weekly Saturday evening ritual. One at a time, Joe throws nine silver dollars in the front door. Missie May runs to the door and pretends to be angry, chasing him and playfully wrestling him until she can search his pockets for the gifts he has brought her: chewing gum, a sweet-smelling soap, and molasses candy kisses. The play-fight over, Joe takes a bath, and the couple settle down to dinner.

Otis D. Slemmons

Toward the end of dinner, Joe tells Missie May that she should go put on her nice clothes because he is taking her out to the new ice cream shop in town. It has just opened, run by a newcomer named Otis D. Slemmons. Missie May has already seen this man, but she did not know his name. They chat about Slemmons, the gold coins he wears on his watch chain and stick pin, and the tales he told Joe about his exciting life filled with money and beautiful women. Joe takes Missie May to the ice cream parlor and is pleased that Slemmons is a little jealous of his beautiful wife. On the way home, Missie May says that she is not that impressed by Slemmons' looks or his stories, but the gold he wears would look good on Joe.

Soon after, Joe comes home early from work and is shocked to find Slemmons in bed with his wife. Slemmons begs Joe not to kill him, offering all of the money he has in the shop to pay for his life. Joe hits him once and then, after Slemmons gets up, grabs him by the vest and hits him again. When Slemmons leaves, Joe realizes he is holding onto the man's watch chain and the gold coin the man claimed was worth 10 dollars. A devastated Missie explains that she had only agreed to the affair because Slemmons had promised her the gold coin. She fears Joe will not love her anymore, but Joe tells her that she does not know his feelings.

Estrangement

Missie May and Joe go on about their lives, but there are no joyful play-fights, no shows of affection, and little to help either of them believe that their situation might improve. After a while, Joe's back pain brings him to Missie May for a back rub, and they rekindle their sexual relationship. The next morning, Missie May finds that Joe has left the watch chain and its coin beneath her pillow. She realizes that the coin is a gilded—gold-plated—four-bit piece, worth a mere 50 cents instead of the 10 dollars Slemmons had claimed. Missie May puts the watch chain and coin in Joe's pocket. She does not see the coin again, but Joe continues to visit her some evenings. He remains emotionally distant, especially as Missie May is now pregnant. Joe is uncertain whether the child is his.

Reconciliation

Joe's mother helps Missie May deliver a baby boy who, according to Joe's mother, bears a definite resemblance to Joe. That weekend, Joe goes to Orlando to do the shopping that he used to do every Saturday. He buys the groceries and then stops at the candy store where he used to buy molasses candy kisses for Missie May. He exchanges the gilded four-bit piece for a big package of molasses candy kisses. As he returns home, he throws his silver dollars in the door of the house, signaling his emotional return to the joyful, loving relationship that he previously shared with his wife.

Analysis

Love

Before Otis D. Slemmons comes to town, Missie May and Joe have a strong love and respect for one another. Hurston communicates the powerful nature of their relationship with her detailed description of the house as well as with their display of affection in the play-fight. Hurston opens the story with the description of the house because it speaks to the character of the couple, their quality of life, and their financial situation. The house is simple, with the inexpensive ornamentation of flowers and whitewashing, but it is clean and well maintained, and "there was something happy about the place." With these details, the reader learns that the couple are poor, but they make the best of what they have. The couple lead a simple but happy life. Every aspect of their home is well tended, just like their relationship. Missie looks forward to her husband coming home, and her husband looks forward to coming home. Their Saturday ritual shows affection and a cooperative engagement in making one another happy. As they discuss Otis D. Slemmons, the reader learns that Missie May and Joe are both physically attracted to one another; Joe wants to show Missie May off to Slemmons, and Missie May prefers Joe's strong build to Slemmons' softer figure. Joe wishes for a child to grow their family and thinks to himself that " ... all, everything was right."

Envy

Otis D. Slemmons' visit highlights the only problem within Missie May and Joe's relationship: they both wish to be a little less poor than they are. When Joe first tells Missie May about Slemmons, he is truly impressed with Slemmons and all that he claims to have seen and done. He envies Slemmons' fine clothes and the fact that he has the soft belly of a rich man who does not need to do physical labor to earn his pay. When Missie May contradicts him, Joe says that he knows he "can't hold a candle" to Slemmons, because Joe has not been anywhere and the only thing he has to be proud of is Missie May. Joe feels like he is at least better than Slemmons in that way—he has a beautiful wife—and brings his wife to the ice cream parlor in order to make Slemmons jealous. Joe is even pleased when Slemmons tells him how attractive his wife is, but there is little that Joe can do in that moment to acquire the life he envies.

Where Joe is envious of Slemmons' life, Missie May is only envious of his money. She would prefer to keep her husband but have Slemmons' gold hanging from Joe's watch chain and stick pin. On the way home from the ice cream shop, she mentions that she and Joe might be able to find some gold on the road. Her words foreshadow her affair with Slemmons, almost as if she is already planning how to explain to Joe how she acquired the gold Slemmons would pay her for the illicit sexual affair. It is not clear, from the story, when Slemmons makes the offer and when Missie May decides to accept it. What is clear is that Missie May was thinking about acquiring that gold long before the affair actually occurs. Missie May gives in to the temptation of her envy, even if it does not have the result she had imagined it would.

False Appearances

Otis D. Slemmons is a man of false appearances. Although he claims to be wealthy, his gold coins turn out to be regular coins with a facing of gold. His fine clothes cover a weak, soft body and a cowardly soul; when Joe catches him with Missie May, Slemmons begs not to fight and offers money instead. His tales of beautiful women giving him money appear to be falsehoods after he offers to pay Missie May (with fake coins) for her company. The fact that he uses his full name—Otis D. Slemmons—instead of something less formal reflects a self-important attitude. Hurston writes his character as a man who charms his way into things with words and appearance more than with substance. Like his coins, his exterior is fine, but his interior is made of wholly different, cheaper materials. Slemmons represents monetary wealth in a way that contrasts with the wealth in love and happiness that Missie May and Joe display in the beginning of the story.

Moving On

Hurston succinctly portrays the difficulty of extending forgiveness and moving past pain and betrayed trust. Hurston gives Missie May and the reader hope that Joe will forgive her when he tells her that she cannot know his feelings: whether or not his love for her is gone. Yet it is clear that Joe holds on to his pain for a long time, unsure whether he can forgive Missie May. While Joe rekindles his sexual romance with Missie May rather early in the story, he remains emotionally distant throughout her pregnancy. It is only when the child is born and clearly resembles Joe that he is truly able to forgive Missie May and recommit to his love for her. The catalyst for this forgiveness—that the child is biologically Joe's—is not guaranteed. Hurston's resolution leaves the reader wondering what might have happened if the child did not look like Joe. Would Joe be able to forgive so easily? Would he have raised another man's child? Would Joe and Missie May's love be strong enough to survive? Even if Joe and Missie May's story is largely a meditation on the perils of envy and greed, its ending raises questions about the nature of emotional healing and forgiveness.

The Gilded Six-Bits Plot Diagram

ClimaxFalling ActionRising ActionIntroductionResolution2134675

Introduction

1 Missie May excitedly greets Joe as he returns from work.

Rising Action

2 Joe takes Missie May to Otis D. Slemmons' ice cream shop.

3 Joe finds Missie May in bed with Otis D. Slemmons.

4 Missie May and Joe struggle to maintain their marriage.

Climax

5 Missie May is pregnant and Joe wonders if he is the father.

Falling Action

6 Missie May delivers a baby boy who looks like Joe.

Resolution

7 Joe recommits to the marriage with a show of affection.

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