Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...©
of Work and Publication Year
Gilded Six-Bits" is a short story about a marriage jeopardized by a foolish
indiscretion. Story magazine published it in 1933.
action takes place mainly in the small African-American town of Eatonville,
Florida, in the early 1930s. One brief scene takes place at a candy store
in Orlando, about six miles south of Eatonville.
Joe Banks: Young African-American
who resides in Eatonville, Florida, with his wife. He works the night shift
at the G. and G. Fertilizer plant.
Missie May Banks:
Wife of Joe.
Otis D. Slemmons:
Big talker from Chicago. He claims that women adore him and give him money.
Joe's Mother: Woman
who at first thinks Missie May is not good enough for her son.
Foreman: G. and G.
Fertilizer employee. One night, he sends Joe and other night-shift workers
home early after a key ingredient in the production of fertilizer runs
Clerk: Employee of
a candy store in Orlando, Florida.
Baby: Child born
to Missie May. After his birth, Joe's mother tells him, "You oughter be
mighty proud cause he sho is de spittin' image of yuh, son."
presents the story in third-person point of view. From time to time, the
narrator reveals the thoughts of Joe and Missie May, as in the following
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. He was polite, even
kind at times, but aloof. There were no more Saturday romps. No ringing
silver dollars to stack beside her plate. No pockets to rifle. In fact,
the yellow coin in his trousers was like a monster hiding in the cave of
his pockets to destroy her.
narrator also reveals what Otis Slemmons is thinking when Joe confronts
him in the bedroom. Here is the sentence: "He [Slemmons] considered a surprise
attack upon the big clown that stood there laughing like a chessy cat."
often wondered if he still had it, but nothing could have induced her to
ask nor yet to explore his pockets to see for herself. Its shadow was in
the house whether or no.
time is the early 1930s. The place is the home of Joe and Missie May Banks
in Eatonville, Florida. After cleaning the house from top to bottom, Missie
May leaves the front door open to allow fresh air to dry the wet floor
of the front room, then bathes in a galvanized tub in the bedroom. She
is hurrying so that she will be in time for Joe, her husband. He works
the night shift at G. and G. Fertilizer during the week. However, on Saturdays,
he has different hours, allowing him to arrive home in the afternoon and
have the night off..
drying herself with a meal sack, she begins dressing. But before she can
finish, she hears coins bouncing onto the front-room floor. It is Joe tossing
nine silver dollars from the yard, a payday ritual. He then hides behind
a jasmine bush. When searching the yard, Missie May spots him running to
the chinaberry tree. Pretending to be angry, she says, “Nobody ain't gointer
be chunkin' money at me and Ah not do 'em nothin'." She chases him to the
kitchen, and they tussle there playfully. Missie May finds a bag of candy
kisses in one of his pockets, as well as other items that he bought her—chewing
gum, soap, a handkerchief—in other pockets.
Joe takes a bath, Missie May puts the dinner on the table: a pitcher of
buttermilk, fried mullet, bread, potatoes, string beans and ham hocks,
and pudding. After dinner, Joe tells her to put on nice clothes, because
they are going to an ice cream parlor that a man from Chicago, Otis D.
Slemmons, just opened. Missie May says she saw the man when he passed by
while she was cleaning the front steps. He smiled, revealing a mouthful
of gold teeth. Joe says he is the best-dressed black man he has ever seen.
de womens is crazy 'bout 'im everywhere he go," Joe says (paraphrasing
what Slemmons himself says). He's got a five-dollar gold piece for a stickpin
and he got a ten-dollar gold piece on his watch chain. . . .”
to Slemmons, white women in Chicago gave him the gold coins.
Missie May asks Joe why Slemmons didn't just stay in Chicago with all those
women, Joe says he reckons that Slemmons received so much money that he
wanted travel around. Missie May says Slemmons is probably just a big talker.
Whatever Slemmons tells Joe, she says, he'll believe. Joe then tells her
to put her good clothes on, saying, “He talkin' 'bout his pritty womens—Ah
want 'im to see mine."
the story jumps forward. Joe and Missie May are on their way home from
the ice cream parlor.)
Ah say ole Otis was swell?” Joe says. “Can't he talk Chicago talk?
May says, “[H]e sho is got uh heap uh gold on 'im. Dat's de first time
Ah ever seed gold money. It lookted good on him sho nuff, but it'd look
a whole heap better on you."
asks where a poor man like him would get “gold money”?
May says they might find some along the road some time. Joe scoffs at this
possibility, saying, “You must be figgerin' Mister Packard or Mister Cadillac
goin' pass through heah." He also says he is satisfied with the way things
are. As long as he is her husband, he says, he doesn't care about anything
evening at the fertilizer plant, a foreman sends Joe and other workers
home around 11 p.m. because of a shortage of one of the ingredients in
the production process. On his way to his house, Joe thinks about having
children. He and Missie May had been married more than a year and saved
money. The time is right, he thinks, for them to have a child—maybe a boy.
he arrives home, he goes to the bedroom, opens the door, and sees Slemmons
with Missie May. The narrator says, “The shapeless enemies of humanity
that live in the hours of Time had waylaid Joe. He was assaulted in his
weakness. Like Samson awakening after his haircut. So he just opened his
mouth and laughed.”
May begins sobbing and Slemmons—rushing to put on his pants—says, “Please,
suh, don't kill me. Sixty-two dollars at de sto'. Gold money."
strikes him with his fist. After Slemmons gets into his clothes, Joe swipes
at the man with his left hand and slugs him with his right, knocking him
into the kitchen. Slemmons runs out of the house. In Joe's left hand is
Slemmons's watch charm, a gold coin, with a piece of broken chain. Missie
May is crying. Joe puts the gold charm away and asks his wife why she is
Ah love you so hard and Ah know you don't love me no mo'," she says. “Oh
Joe, honey, he said he wuz gointer give me dat gold money and he jes' kept
on after me—"
now lying in bed, doesn't respond immediately. But after several minutes,
he says, “Well, don't cry no mo', Missie May. Ah got yo' gold piece for
the night, the hours pass slowly. In the morning, Missie May thinks the
marriage is over. There is no use in even getting out of bed, she thinks.
After a time, Joe says, “Missie May, ain't you gonna fix me no breakfus'?"
jumps out of bed, thinking Joe needs her for at least a little while longer.
In the kitchen a short time later, she puts fried chicken and rice on the
table, along with hot biscuits. While Joe eats, he asks Missie May why
she hasn't touched her food.
don't choose none, Ah thank yuh," she says.
Joe's coffee cup is empty, she takes it to the stove and refills it. When
she sets it back down next to him, she sees the gold piece on the table.
She begins weeping again. He tells her she cries too much.
look back lak Lot's wife and turn to salt," he says.
pass. Missie remains with Joe because she loves him, but she does not understand
why Joe has not left her. To be sure, he is a different man—distant—but
he treats her well. However, he no longer acts playfully with her when
he comes home on Saturday. That gold coin had become “a monster hiding
in the cave of his pockets to destroy her.”
evening, Joe comes home early with back pains and asks Missie May for a
liniment massage. She readily accommodates him, touching him for the first
time in three months. That night, they become man and wife again.
making the bed the next day, she finds the gold coin with the attached
piece of chain under her pillow. Upon examining it, she discovers that
it is merely gilded, not solid gold. Like the coin, Slemmons is a fraud.
Missie May then wonders whether Joe put the coin under the pillow to signify
that she is like women in a brothel who can be bought for fifty cents.
She puts the coin in the pocket of his Sunday pants, dresses, and leaves
on the street she runs into his mother, who has always been cool toward
Missie May. Missie May decides she will not let that woman gloat in triumph.
So she turns around and goes home. If anyone is to leave, it will have
to be Joe.
coin does not reappear even though she knows Joe must have found it in
his pocket. But his pains persist, and about every ten days he comes home
from work for a rubdown.
pass. One day, when he returns from work, he sees Missie May chopping wood.
He takes the axe from her and chops a big pile before stopping. He tells
her she should not be chopping wood. She is pregnant, after all. She says
it will be a child that will look just like him.
reckon, Missie May?”
else could it look lak?”
months pass. When the time is near for Missie May to give birth, Joe gets
his mother to stay with her. One morning when he comes home from work,
his new boy is waiting for him. His mother tells him Missie May is a strong
woman who will have many more children. She adds that the boy is the very
image of Joe and that he ought to be proud of it. She admits that she was
against Missie May because she thought she would take after her mother,
who was somewhat promiscuous. But now she knows that the child is Missie
Saturday, he does the shopping at a market in Orlando, then goes to a candy
store and buys some kisses. He pays for them with the gilded half-dollar,
telling the clerk he got the gold-plated coin from a man who was passing
through Eatonville—a man who pretended it was real gold. He says the man
made eyes at the wives of menfolk.
ain't fooled me none,” Joe says. “Know whut Ah done? He come round me wid
his smart talk. Ah hauled off and knocked 'im down and took his old four-bits
away from 'im.”
he returns to Eatonville, Joe begins tossing coins through the door onto
the wooden floor. Missie May can't run to the door, but she comes crawling.
climax occurs when Joe comes home to find Missie May chopping wood. She
is pregnant. He takes the axe from her and finishes chopping the wood,
telling her, “You ain't got no business choppin' wood, and you know it.”
Here, he demonstrates his concern for Missie May and the child in her womb.
He accepts her and the child even though he knows that Slemmons could be
the father. This moment confirms Joe's faith in his wife. Six months later,
she bears the child, and Joe once again becomes the playful husband that
he was at the beginning of the story.
All That Glitters Is Not
Joe tells Missie May about the gold fashion accessories that Otis Slemmons
wears, he says, “Sho wisht [they] wuz mine. And whut make it so cool, he
got money 'cumulated. And womens give it all to 'im." Missie May then thinks
she can make Joe happy if she does for Joe what other women do for Slemmons—give
him gold. But Joe—contradicting what he earlier said—tells her, “Don't
be so wishful 'bout me. Ah'm satisfied de way Ah is. So long as Ah be yo'
husband. Ah don't keer 'bout nothin' else.” Missie May, however, does not
understand how precious she is to Joe. She wants to give Joe gold to prove
her love for him. In order to get it, she gives herself to Slemmons, who
promises to reward her.
Joe finds them together, he thrashes Slemmons and accidentally strips away
the gold coin attached to Slemmons's watch. Joe later discovers that it
is merely a gilded coin. One night, he puts it under Missie May's pillow.
When she finds it in the morning, she discovers the truth about it. Like
Slemmons, it is a fraud. The whole episode reinforces for Missie May the
wisdom of the Shakespearean adage “All that glisters [glitters] is not
gold” (The Merchant of Venice, 2. 7. 67). The real treasure in the
Banks household is love—her love for Joe and his love for her.
Slemmons deceives others into believing that he is wealthy man whom the
ladies adore. To pull off his deception, he wears gilded baubles that women
like Missie May take for solid-gold accessories. When he promises to reward
her with riches if she will yield herself to him, she accepts his proposal.
She plans to use her reward to elevate Joe to the status of Otis. She then
deceives Joe by allowing Slemmons into her bedroom while Joe is at work.
Her scheme fails when Joe arrives home from work early and discovers her
with Slemmons. Her deception jeopardizes her relationship with Joe. Fortunately
for her, Joe is a forgiving man who, in time, rebuilds the trust between
his wife and himself.
months after Joe finds Missie May with Slemmons, he is cool toward her.
As the narrator says, “He [Joe] was polite, even kind at times, but aloof.
There were no more Saturday romps. No ringing silver dollars to stack beside
her plate. No pockets to rifle. In fact, the yellow coin in his trousers
was like a monster hiding in the cave of his pockets to destroy her.” Gradually,
however, he warms to her again—thanks to his patience and their still vibrant
love for each other—and they fully reconcile.
What is the meaning of gilded?
is an adjective meaning overlaid with a thin layer of gold or coated
with a gold color.
Q. What is the
meaning of six-bits?
A. A bit is
an amount worth 12½ cents. Thus, two bits equal 25 cents, four bits
equal 50 cents, and six bits equal 75 cents. In "The Gilded Six-Bits,"
Hurston refers to Otis D. Slemmons's watch charm (a fifty-cent coin) as
six bits. However, since a half-dollar coin is worth only four bits, it
appears that the story should have been entitled "The Gilded Four-Bits."
are examples of figures of speech in the story. For definitions of figures
of speech, see Literary Terms.
drops of butter
up and pile
beside her plate
of spicy potato
Missie May and Joe
already possess a treasure far more valuable than gold: their love for
each other. Ironically, Missie May nearly loses this love in return for
the promise of a gold coin (which really isn't gold in the first place)
from Otis Slemmons. However, her repentance and Joe's faith in her save
their marriage. Metaphor
An implied metaphor
running through the story is that the home of Joe and Missie May Banks
is an Eden. A serpent (Otis D. Slemmons) enters the Eden and seduces Missie
May with the promise of gold. She succumbs to his promise. However, she
redeems herself with her exemplary behavior thereafter.
[T]he challenging sun flung
a flaming sword from east to west across the trembling water.
Comparison of the reflected
image of the sun to a flaming sword
[A] lean moon rode the lake
in a silver boat.
Comparison of the reflected
image of the moon to a silver boat; comparison of the moon to a boat passenger
There was a quick,
large movement in the bedroom. A rustle,
a thud, and a stealthy silence.Simile
Joe stood out like
a rough-backed mountain between him and the door.
Comparison of Joe Banks
to a mountain
They ought to be
making little feet for shoes.
of Terms in the Story
"Little feet" is a term
for a baby.
Eatonville: Town in
Orange County, Florida. Blacks founded and incorporated the town on August
Allusion to the Cheshire cat in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
(1865), by Lewis Carroll (1832-1898). It was known for its mischievous
Jurdan: Jordan River.
In dialogue at the supper table, Joe says, "Ah could . . . drink Jurdan
Lot's wife: Wife
of Abraham's nephew, Lot, in Genesis 19:1-26. When Lot flees the wicked
city of Sodom with his wife and daughters before its destruction, two angels
warn them not to look back. But Lot's wife looks back, and she is turned
into a pillar of salt.
Henry Leland (1843-1932), developer of the Cadillac motor car. He named
it after the founder of Detroit, Michigan—Antoine de La Mothe Cadillac
James Ward Packard (1863-1928) or William Doud Packard (1861-1923, brothers.
The Packards founded the Packard Motor Car Company and the Packard Electric
warrior (Judges 13-16) known for his superhuman strength. Delilah, a woman
from the valley of Sorek, cut off his hair—the source of his strength—while
he was sleeping. Consequently, he temporarily lost his strength.
Questions and Writing Topics
Write an essay focusing on how
Zora Neale Hurston reveals the qualities of Joe and Missie May through
What do you most admire about
What do you most admire about
Why does Joe put the gilded
coin under Missie May's pillow?
Write an essay arguing that
Zora Neale Hurston based "The Gilded Six-Bits" partly on her own experiences.