Appearing in Story magazine and traditionally considered Zora Neale Hurston’s most accomplished story, “The Gilded Six-Bits” had a favorable reception that helped call Hurston to the attention of critics and publishers and resulted in the publication of her first novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1934). Whether readers and critics have actually plumbed the story to its full extent, however, is called into question with the recent rise in popularity of her earlier story “Sweat”” and its sympathetic portrayal of a wife’s situation. Although “The Gilded Six-Bits” clearly addresses the themes of hypocrisy, money, infidelity, and marital love, a reading of Hurston’s themes in earlier stories, along with a feminist critical perspective, suggests that the third-person narrator implicitly criticizes marriage and depicts it as a subtle form of prostitution. Readers who interpret the story this way can connect Hurston with the social and gender concerns of such other contemporaries as Edith Wharton.
Hurston depicts Missie May and Joe, a young married couple, as sharing a happy and loving relationship. Beneath the surface of their Edenic bliss, however, the alert reader notes that Hurston portrays Missie May as childlike (even her name sounds babyish) and pointedly illustrates Joe’s superior attitude toward her. Each Saturday he returns home from work and hurls, throws, and chunks silver dollars at the door, having trained Missie May to pick them up and pile them beside her plate at dinner. As a father does, he “indulgently” allows his wife to search his pockets for hidden treats (568); contradicts her when she says she is hungry, because only men, he implies, work hard enough to have an appetite; and insists that he “parade” his pretty wife in front of Otis, the big spender from Chicago. Missie May resists the trip, protesting that Joe is all the man she needs, but he unwittingly sets her up for adultery by praising Otis, whom he tries to emulate, and extolling his pieces of gold and envying all his “pretty womens” (567). The equation of money, sex, and maleness cannot but filter dimly into Missy May’s consciousness.
When Joe arrives home early one night and surprises Missy May in bed with Otis, she confesses that Otis promised the gold in return for sex. Missie May is grateful that, rather than leaving her, Joe allows her to continue to cook for and wait on him and perform the services of a masseuse. Moreover, he gives her the gold piece he had ripped from Otis’s vest when he struck him, and Missie May, feeling like a prostitute, returns the money—which in any case turns out to be only a gilded half-dollar. When, months later, Missie May gives birth to a baby boy that looks exactly like Joe, she has redeemed herself: He uses the gilded coin to buy candy for her and the baby.
As with many Hurston stories and novels, the African-American characters are sympathetically treated, especially when they interact with whites. When Joe buys the candy from the clerk and pridefully tells him that Otis never fooled him, the clerk’s reaction is like the white sheriff’s in William Faulkner’s “Pantaloon in Black”: The clerk insensitively and erroneously remarks that “these darkies” never have problems; they just laugh “all the time” (574). Yet when Hurston refocuses on the couple, her narrator remains implicitly critical of the unequal nature of the relationship: Joe returns home and chunks 15 silver dollars at the door. Still weak from childbirth and unable to run, but clearly grateful for her reinstatement in Joe’s good graces, Missie May “crept there as quickly as she could” (574). The complexity of the story and the ways readers continue to interpret it assure it a long-lasting place in 20th-century literature.
Hurston, Zora Neale. “The Gilded Six-Bits.” In Major Writers of Short Fiction: Stories and Commentary, edited by Ann Charters. Boston: St. Martin’s, 1993.