I wrote this essay for the ACETA Conference (Alabama Council of Teachers of English) in February, 2016. It was supposed to rehash an earlier paper about Hurston’s play, Polk County, but instead of matching examples from the short story to my discussion of the play, I had to write a whole new paper. Since only two people came to the session, I want someone else to see the work . I have put in some headings to break up the text . . . Sarah Mayfield, Miles College, Fairfield, Alabama
Northern Serpent in Paradise: “The Gilded-Six-Bits,” by Zora Neale Hurston
My students enjoy Zora Neale Hurston’s “The Gilded Six-Bits” because it contains illicit sex and betrayal. They take sides about whom to blame for Missy May’s adultery and tend to stop there. I would like to take them more deeply into this deceptively simple parable of envy, infidelity, and healing by looking at its mythic elements. At many levels, “Six Bits” echoes Adam and Eve being thrown out of the Garden of Eden. This myth-based approach accounts for the couple’s lost innocence and their long journey to reconciliation. Missy and Joe Banks are a Depression era Adam and Eve; the serpent is a stranger from the north, and envy of him is the forbidden fruit that almost destroys the marriage.
The story begins by describing “a Negro House in a Negro yard in a Negro settlement that looked to payroll of the G and G Fertilizer works for its support.” Nancy Chinn and Elizabeth Dunn point out that Hurston begins her story with a folk-tale formula, much like the “once upon a time” of fairy tales. At the same time, this opening establishes the boundaries of the story in historic time. The settlement is Eatonville, Florida, where Hurston grew up, and there was indeed a fertilizer plant nearby. (“‘The Ring of Singing Metal on Wood’: . . .”) This story works at so many levels it is important to remember that one of them is realistic.
Nancy Chinn and Elizabeth Dunn see the story set in a “unique” African American community because it is free of white people. They also believe “The Gilded Six-Bits” illustrates Hurston’s talent for being “a fiction writer, folklorist, and historian,” all at the same time; she looks for unity rather than division.
Norman German, however, takes the same opening paragraph to mean that, to some people, Negro is inferior to white. He quotes the following to suggest that whiteness is superior: “The fence and house were whitewashed. The porch and steps scrubbed white.” Later in his analysis, German highlights other comparisons between black and white, for the northerner dresses like a white man and displays gold, which not even a white man would do. German suggests the couple is “disguising the homeliness” of their existence. The raked dirt yard, blooming flowers, and bottles driven into the ground along the walk just “buffer” the harshness of their lives. (“Counterfeiting and a Two-Bit Error . . .” 5 ) He argues that Hurston is exploring and dramatizing “appearance versus reality” because “people are two-faced, marriage is a thinly disguised form of prostitution, and the slippery nature of language makes direct communication impossible” (5)
Advantages of a myth-based reading
The deceptively simple structure of the story invites these different interpretations, and a myth-based reading includes them. In the beginning, Missy May prepares for Joe to come home. The house is clean, dinner is cooking, and she is taking a bath, “her stiff young breasts thrust forward aggressively, like broad-based cones, the tips lacquered in black” (“Six-bits”). Joe throws nine silver coins in the door, and Missy May cries, “Nobody ain’t gointr be chunkin money at me and I not do em nuthin” If we follow German’s approach, this could mean that she had done nothing to earn the silver pieces, and that might support his idea of marriage as prostitution. If we take the Garden of Eden approach, this is simply a happy couple having fun. They wrestle as Missy May tries to rob Joe’s pockets full of gifts and candy kisses (that may echo the shape of her breasts); then the couple eats the bountiful dinner Missy has prepared. Their conversation is “banter that pretended to deny affection but in reality flaunted it.” Missy May is not “hongry,” Joe says. “Youse jes’ a little empty.” She can’t have a second helping of “tater pone” because “You too sweet already.” Is this dishonest communication as German argues, or it is foreplay? The nine coins do end up beside her dinner plate. Do they coins suggest marriage as prostitution, or do they simply show Joe turning over his pay for Missy to manage?
Money is important to this marriage, no matter how one interprets the scene. “The Gilded Six-Bits” first appeared in Story magazine in 1933, during the Great Depression. As Chinn and Dunn point out, however, the couple is not suffering financially. Joe has a steady job. He and Missy May have even saved money to have a baby. She may have to dry off with a meal sack and use newspaper to cover her pantry shelves, but the couple has plenty of food to put on those shelves. Joe muses:
That was the best part of life—going home to Missy May. Their whitewashed house, the mock battle on Saturday, the dinner and ice cream parlor afterwards, church on Sunday nights when Missy out dressed any woman in town—all, everything, was right. (“Six Bits”)
The Serpent enters Eden
The couple still live in a sort of paradise, but they are in danger. Joe and Missy have everything they need, but they still focus on money. The ground is ready and the seeds of envy are planted by the time Otis Slemmons enters the picture. He is from the North—Chicago and other “spots and places.” The owner of a new ice-cream parlor, he is plump, and he wears “gold” money as jewelry. Slemmons says women give him money, and Joe wants to be like Slemmons. He tries to make his flat stomach stick out, imitates the northerner’s walk, wishes for his gold, and wants his approval.
Missy is not impressed. She sees the man when she buys a box of lye (German’s emphasis) at the store. She finds Slemmons fat but does notice his gold teeth. Joe however seems in awe. Slemmons has the “finest clothes Ah ever seen on a colored man’s back,” and his stomach makes Slemmons look “lak a rich white man. All rich mens is got some belly on em,” he says. (“Six bits”) German emphasizes the comparisons with white men, but even without racial comparisons, it is clear that Joe envies Slemmons.
Missy May insists that Joe looks as good in his clothes as Slemmons does, and she tells Joe that two very rich white men, Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller, are slim. She believes Joe is “patterned after a pine tree” and “built noble.” He is a “pretty” man, and if there was any way to improve Joe, she would do it.
Unconvinced, Joe believes he “can’t hold no light to Otis D. Slemmons. Ah ain’t never been nowhere and Ah ain’t got nothin’ but you,” he protests. All the women are crazy about Slemmons—Slemmons says so, and Missy does not believe that for a minute.
“His mouf is cut crossways, ain’t it? Well, he kin lie jes’ lak anybody else,” she retorts. (“Six Bits”)
At this point, however, Joe begins to get Missy’s attention. Slemmons has a “ten dollar gold piece on his watch chain” and women give him money. Missy simply calls Joe “dumb” for believing everything the “stray nigger” says.
The conversation ends when Joe tells Missy to dress up because he is taking her to Slemmons’ ice-cream parlor. Slemmons has women, travel experience, and so much gold he can wear it as jewelry. Joe “has” Missy May; maybe he can’t compete with Slemmons, but Joe wants Slemmons to admire his wife.
Missy Changes her Mind
On the way home from the ice cream parlor, Joe is still full of praise for Slemmons. Missy now agrees that “He’ll do in case of a rush,” and his gold interests her, for she has never seen gold before. Though Missy is still her own person, she has now received the seeds of envy even though she does not want that gold for herself. She tells Joe, “It looked good on him sho nuff, but it’d look a whole heap better on you” (“Six Bits”)
Joe demands to know where someone like him could get gold, and Missy thinks a moment. Then she suggests that they could find it along the road. Joe counters that they don’t even see white people “wearin’ no gold money on dey watch chain. You must be figgerin’ Mister Packard or Mister Cadillac goin’ pass through heah” (“Six Bits”)
Missy continues to muse about what has been lost and what could be found, however. What has been lost? Chinn and Dunn suggest that Joe’s envy of Slemmons makes him dissatisfied with his own life. After all, he’s never been anywhere, and Missy May is all he has. Missy, they argue, thinks she is not enough for Joe. (“Ring of Metal”) By even imagining ways to get gold, Missy May could be already losing her innocence and paving the couple’s way out of their Eden-like existence. They have all they need; gold would just make Joe happier and “prettier.” If they could find some gold, she says, “you could wear some ‘thout havin’ a gang of womens lak dat Slemmons say he got” (“Six bits”) Joe promises that he does not need anything but her, and she doesn’t believe him.
Betrayal and Consequence
After another trip or so to the ice-cream parlor, Joe comes home unexpectedly and finds Slemmons pulling on his pants in the couple’s bedroom. Joe hits Slemmons and grabs the gold piece off his watch chain. He responds to Missy’s infidelity by laughing—perhaps out of “weakness,” as the narrator suggests. Joe may, however, laugh at the irony of the situation. This braggart surrounded by rich women seduces Joe’s wife. After all, she is all he has, and Joe only wanted Slemmons’ admiration. Now Slemmons’ fine clothes become“damn rags,” Joe sees Slemmons for the fake he is, and he blames Missy.
She cannot stop crying. Joe asks why she is crying and she says, “Cause Ah love you so hard and Ah know you don’t love me no mo” (“Six Bits”).
Joe responds, “You don’t know de feelings of dat yet, Missie May.” These words suggest that this is not simple case of adultery. Clearly, Missy feels no love for Slemmons; she wants only Joe, but she betrays him anyway.
Missy explains that Slemmons promised her gold, “and he jes’kept on after me—“ Joe responds that she can stop crying because he got Slemmons’ gold piece for her. The story is no longer about gold, however. Because of Joe’s envy and Missy’s short-sightedness, all of the playfulness in their marriage, all of the childlike innocence and dinner table banter is gone. They have kicked themselves out of the garden.
From now until the end of the story, the gold that would have looked good on Joe, the gold that Joe wanted, and the gold that finally impressed Missy, that gold has become a barrier. When Joe puts it between them on the breakfast table the next morning, Missy weeps again.
Time passes. She does not leave Joe because she loves him, but she cannot understand why he does not leave her. He carries the coin, and it has become “a monster hiding in the cave of his pockets to destroy her.” About three months later, Joe comes home with a back ache and Missy’s massage turns into sex. Joe leaves the coin under her pillow.
Now Missie sees that the coin is only a “gilded half dollar.” She understands why Slemmons would not let anyone get too close to it, and she wonders if Joe leaving it under her pillow meant that the estrangement was over. Then the truth hits her; he just paid her as if she were a prostitute—and only 50 cents at that. At this point, Missie puts the coin into the pocket of Joe’s Sunday pants and prepares to leave him for good. She changes her mind, however. Missy will keep the “outside show” of her marriage even if the “substance” is gone. She decides that “Joe must leave her.”
The couple enters a stage of letting things be. The coin stays in Joe’s pocket, still a malevolent force. Chinn and Dunn say that it is a symbol that he does not forgive Missy. The pockets that used to hold treats now hold punishment. (“Ring of Metal”) Still, Joe continues to have back trouble, they continue to have sex, and Missy May becomes pregnant.
German does the math in the story and shows that Joe is undeniably the child’s father (“Counterfeit” 10). Joe is slow to understand, however, but when he realizes that the child is his son, Joe goes back to the candy store. He spends the gilded half-dollar on candy kisses, and that symbolizes forgiveness. Partly as self-preserving deceit on Joe’s part, as Chinn and Dunn argue, and partly out of quiet confidence, Joe tells the store keeper a few half-truths. He has not been to the store in a year because he has been in “spots and places,” like Slemmons. Only, as Chinn and Dunn point out, his “spots and places” have been within himself and his relationship with Missy, not all around the country (“Ring”) Joe says, in an echo of Missy’s words at the beginning of the story, that he got the money “off a stray nigger,” who seduced other men’s wives. He didn’t fool Joe, however. Joe tells the store keeper, “Ah hauled off and knocked ‘im down and took his old four-bits away from ‘im” (“Six Bits”) That is only partially true. Why should Joe tell the storekeeper that Slemmons fooled him and seduced Missy May with the promise of that fake gold? Joe lets the stereotype lie, that “darkies” are “laughin all the time. Nothin’ worries ‘em” (12). He and Missy May know what they have been through; perhaps he will be content with the money he makes and the family he has and not go chasing after flashy people and fake money. That would be the Sunday School ending to the story.
German suggests that Joe has not learned anything because he is still imitating Slemmons at the end of the story, still talking about “my wife” as if she were a commodity. For freshmen students reading this story for the first time, however, the parallels with the Garden of Eden should help them see that there is more than adultery to the story. It may be enough to show that Joe and Missy have both behaved badly; they have both lost innocence and gained maturity. Joe’s envy of Slemmons begins as childlike, but when it leads Missy to adultery, the couple is symbolically thrown out of Eden. They have to find a new place in the world.
Chinn, Nancy and Elizabeth E. Dunn. “ ‘The Ring of Singing Metal on Wood’: Zora Neale Hurstons’s Artistry in ‘The Gilded Six-Bits.’ ”Mississippi Quarterly 49.4 (Fall 1996): pp. 775-790. Rpt. In Short Story Criticism. Ed. Thomas J. Schoenberg and Lawrence J. Trudeau. Vol. 80. Detroit: Gale, 2005. From Literature Resource Center. Full Text: Copyright 2005 Gale, Copyright 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning. Web. 2/17/2016 German, Norman. “Countrfeilting and a Two-Bit Error in Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘The Gilded Six-Bits.’ “ Xavier Review 19.2 (1999): pp. 5-15. Xavier University of Louisiana. https://ww2.southeastern.edu/Academics?Facultly/ . . ./Six Bits_232.PDF. Web/ 2/17/16 Hurston, Zora Neale. “The Gilded Six-Bits” http://facstaff.uww.edu/carlberj/hurston.htm
Appendix: Deleted Material I still Like
Hurston’s language hints at a mythic element to the story. Right before Joe discovers Missy and Slemmons, the words become philosophical or overwritten. He usually comes home in the early morning when “dying dawn saw him hustling around the lake where the challenging sun flung a flaming sword from east to west across the trembling water” Chinn and Dunn believe this imagery suggests trouble ahead for the marriage (Ringing metal 7). The envy of Slemmons and his gold is no longer harmless. The night he goes home early, “a lean moon rode the lake in a silver boat.” He thinks of “making feet for shoes” (“Gilded” 6). The moon is associated with women and pregnancy; the lake suggests the water of creation. Too soon, Joe discovers Missy May’s infidelity. Hurston writes: “The great belt on the Wheel of Time slipped and eternity stood still.” Then she adds “The shapeless enemies of humanity that live in the hours of Time had waylaid Joe.” (“Gilded” 7). After Joe throws Slemmons out of the house, he and Missy go to bed, and “the hours went by on their rusty ankles” (“Gilded” 8) Couldn’t Hurston have just said something like “everything froze for a moment” and “the night went on forever”? She uses this elevated language to, as Chen and Dunn suggest, reason from the particular to the general” (“Ring” 3) She turns a tawdry bedroom scene into something mythic, like Adam and Eve sharing the forbidden fruit and then being thrown out of paradise. When the night passes on “rusty ankles,” Hurston may be implying that the couple has grown old and slow, or that the night passes so slowly it feels like an ancient person. On the other hand, she may be referring to the chains of slavery. Chinn and Dunn analyze many of the symbols Hurston uses to show how time passes, but all of the elevated language draws attention because it mixes mythic images with everyday dialect.
“The Gilded Six-Bits” has many layers; its simplicity is deceptive, and scholars still argue about it. Norman German shows that everything in the story is counterfeit from beginning to end, for no one says what he or she really means. He also argues that the story contains many images of racial competition. (Counterfeiting 5) Nancy Chinn and Elizabeth Dunn, on the other hand, see the story set in a “unique” African American community. They also believe “The Gilded Six-Bits” illustrates Hurston’s talent for being “a fiction writer, folklorist, and historian,” all at the same time, working for unity rather than division.
At the end of the story, after Missy has had the baby and Joe believes himself to be the father, Joe once again throws money into his house and brings candy kisses in his pocket. This time, however, Missy May is unable to wrestle Joe because she had her baby just a week ago. There is more money, and Joe has spent the whole gilded coin on candy kisses. The marriage seems healed; the couple have now become a family. Have they learned anything?
German would say that they have not. We do not learn that Joe’s last name is Banks until the end of the story; his name would remind readers of bank failures. “Banks is not rich; Slemmons is not slim, and Missy may or may not be a ‘real wife.’ ” (13)
Chinn and Dunn argue that Slemmons takes away the “innocent charm” of the opening scene, but the change he starts “brings new depth and complexity to [the couple’s] individual identities and makes a new beginning possible” (10).
If we think of the story as a variation on the myth of Adam and Eve, all of these opposites can coexist.