Gilded Six-Bits: The Artistic Style of Zora Neale Hurston

The short story, The Gilded Six-Bits by Zora Neale Hurston written in 1933, is a unique story of love and marriage.  The strength of their love is tested when, the main character Missie May commits adultery and is caught by her husband.  Hurston uses many literary styles and techniques to tell her story. Imagery is echoed throughout the piece, used to set the scene and mood.  Language is also key as she uses language, literary style and various writing techniques.  Missie May and Joe are a young married couple who live in a small Black town some time during the early 1900’s.  Joy works for a fertilizer company, while Missie May takes care of the house hold.  Slemmons is the antagonist. His name represents a charactonym because it can be associated with slimy, slick, or slim. He is a shady character from out of town who attempts to counterfeit his gilded half dollars and quarters as gold.  Missie May initially convinces her husband that Slemmons is no one to look up to. With Slemmons large stomach and pocket book, Missie May is caught committing adultery with him. The affair is witnessed by her faithful husband.  Gilded Six-Bits is a short story thick with imagery and literary style, as the reader is taken through a journey of a heart wrenching story of lost trust.

The setting of the story is made through its diction.  An example of this can be observed within the first two sentences of the short story:

It was a Negro yard around a Negro house in a Negro

settlement that looked to the payroll of the G. and G. Fertilizer

works for its support.  But there was something happy about

the place.

This first sentence uses indirect objects, making it clear to the reader the story is placed in any Black American town.  It sets the reader up for the place and setting of the piece narrowing everything down to any specific African American home, yard, and settlement.  In this one sentence a lot is learned about the rest of the story.  The audience then knows that this story is about a Black family in a small Black community.  We know the story is set during Jim Crow as Blacks are referenced as Negro, the common term associated with Blacks during this time. It could be further assumed that this settlement is a town, it houses a factory, which supports the town and employs the people.  At the beginning of the piece everything is made in general to a time, place, and setting. Later on we learn that “a Negro settlement” is actually Eatonville, Florida, birthplace of the author.  The next sentence tells the reader, “But there was something happy about the place” (Hurston).  The second sentence uses a direct object.  This lets the reader know that “the place” that is being talked about is “a Negro house” (Hurston).  What is most interesting about this second sentence is the tone of voice.  By starting the sentence off with “but”, the second sentence works in coordinating conjunction with the first. “But” used in this case is to modify the second sentence.  “But” modifies the fact that “there was something happy about the place”, all the while it indicates a direct relation to the “Negro house” and the happiness that was there (Hurston).  Together the first two sentences suggest irony. After we learn of the “Negro yard around a Negro house in a Negro settlement”, the author tells us that despite the fact that it is Negro, that also it was happy (Hurston).  This gives the reader an assumption that there is an indication that the “Negro house” would be unhappy, unstable, or have any other negative connotations.  It is given that assumptions are made due to the state of African Americans during the time it was written. Most Blacks were poor from share-cropping and little miens.  Although the audience may assume a “Negro house” would be unhappy, she quickly lets the reader know that there is “something” that makes it happy.  The happiness that is seen about the house is told throughout the first page of the piece.  The flowers in the yard, “bloom(ed) cheerily”, the porch is “scrubbed white”, and “the front door stood open to the sunshine”, (Hurston)

As the story moves on, the narrator sets up the rest of the scene.  The description of the yard and house is provided, all of which displays, beauty, order, and care by the husband and wife who lives there.  Although quart bottles are “driven neck down into the ground” and “homey flowers planted without a plan” (Hurston). Happiness is echoed within the sentences as that kitchen is given a “fancy edge” to it, the “fence and house were whitewashed”, and the “newspaper cut” (Hurston).  The happiness that is sensed in the home is also seen as the characters are introduced.  Missie May is described as “grin[ing] with delight”, her husband Joe is also described with a happy grin “at the joyful mischief he was about to commit” (Hurston).  This opening scene shows the interaction between husband and wife as it defines the happiness of their marriage.  The “joyful mischief” is seen throughout as Joe lovingly throws silver dollars at the door for Missie May (Hurston). The opening of the story complements the framed picture of bliss and happiness of the young couple. It emphasizes the richness of their lives before the climax.  The playfulness of the young couple is seen as they rustle with one another and play a Saturday ritual. “The two were a furious mass of male and female energy, shouting, and laughing,” as Missie May searches the pockets of her husband for treats (Hurston).  Adoration is echoed throughout the seen as they both play in a game of good natured teasing. This displays their love for each other and mutual affection.  Joe sums up the relationship between he and his wife with, “everything was right” (Hurston).  Within all of this happiness, in one sentence, the reader is given a small hint of the downfall that is soon to come as the narrator describes, “the big tall man come stealing in the gate” (Hurston).

Money, and the image of money, is observed throughout the short piece.  Money is represented in the title of the short story, Gilded Six-Bits, and its image and character is repeated throughout.  Although everything was happy between Missie May and Joe, ultimately money becomes the reason for their down fall in the middle of the story.  The images of money can be seen in the diction.  Examples of this is in the word usage, such as “the dollar clock”, “ring of singing metal”, “payroll of the G. and G”, and “pocket handkerchief” (Hurston).  When Joe enters the scene, the audience sees him “throwing silver dollars in the door” (Hurston).  For Missie May and Joe this is a simple game of fun and mischief that has also become a Saturday ritual for the couple.  When Otis D Slemmons enters the story, he is unique and becomes an important character because of his money.  It is Slemmons gold, which attributes to Missie May’s infidelity. She only wants the gold to please her husband. Slemmons is described by Missie May as, “Dat heavy-set man wid’ his mouth full of gold teethes” (Hurston).  Slemmons represents gold within this story. “He’s got a five-dollar gold piece for a stick-pin and he got a ten-dollar gold piece on his watch chain” (Hurston).  So, as Slemmons is the man who represents gold, Joe is the man who represents silver, which shows the over all contrast and comparison of Slemmons and Joe.  Slemmons is very flashy man who shows off his wealth and prominence by wearing nice clothes and smiling wide to show the gold in his teeth. Joe only flashes his money to Missie May. Furthermore, silver is considered less valuable and more common.  This makes Joe the standard working class male and Slemmons the wealthy entrepreneur.

In the height of the story, Hurston uses many literary techniques to describe the scene, to create images, and to bring the point across.  The first image the marks the climax of the scene as Joe is walking home, “a lean moon rode the lake in a silver boat” (Hurston). Hurston personifies the moon adding imagery to the night.   Also, by the narrator illuminating the night’s beauty, the reader becomes aware that something is about to happen. It intensifies the scene and creates an image on the page. Ironically enough, Hurston also ends the scene by a similar celestial image. The ending image brings an end to a horrific night and to carry in a new day, “the sun’s tide crept upon the shore of night and drowned all its hours” (Hurston).  By ending the scene with the similar image, it also begins the new section of the story, the new life of Missie May and Joe after the affair.

The narrator also graces the pages with hyperboles, “the sun, the hero of everyday, the impersonal man that beams as brightly on death as on birth, came up every morning and raced across the blue dome and dipped into the sea of fire every evening” (Hurston). This is such a vivid and extraordinary image that is rare in the story but common in Hurston’s work. Hurston is able to bring brilliant animation to the most static objects. This one sentence is swollen with imagery as it also informs the reader of the days and nights that has passed.  The use of similes is also displayed within the story.  During the middle of the piece, when Joe catches Slemmons at his house, Hurston uses similes to help describe the scene. As Joe “stood laughing like a cheesy cat”, he wanted to “crush him like a battering ram”, and “stood out like a rough-backed mountain” (Hurston).  All of the comparisons that are used in these two short paragraphs are natural items that are a part of or occur in nature.  This animalistic undertone is seen as Hurston uses these items to describe Joe’s feelings about the situation.  His reactions and feelings are innate in him as he has the animalistic feelings to kill Slemmons as if he were his prey. Instead, all Joe can do is stand and laugh, using the opportunity to strike Slemmons.

The use of repetition is noted within the text of the piece.  After Joe is asleep, the narrator describes the feelings and thoughts of Missie May as the words, “nothing” and “no more” is repeated consistently. Each “no more” and “nothing” always starting at the beginning of the sentence:

 Nothing more…No need to fling the front door and sweep

off the porch, making it nice for Joe.  Never no more breakfast

to cook; no more washing and starching of Joe’s jumper-jackets

and pants.  No more nothing.

Negative connotations are repeated and echoed within these few sentences up to six times.  It is also referred to as a double negative. It is not only a common practice in speech in the African American community, it also describes the feelings of Missie May and her betrayal. This stings the reader of Missie Mays desperation, and her assurance that things were defiantly over between her and Joe.  It also reiterates the guilt and hurt she felt about the situation.  The use of repetition is also used in the opening sentence.  The word “Negro” is repeated three times, giving a strong sense of placement to the reading audience, but also it makes a political statement.  It suggest that everything about the place was “Negreo” as if a home can be a “Negreo” home, as if objects can be called and produced as “Negreo” objects.  Also, this repetition restates the term “Negro”, which was a politically correct term to use at the time. It indicates the need to delete and omit other derogatory terms and terminologies associated with this community.

Another use of literary style seen throughout this piece is the use of folk language and black idioms and dialect.  The dialogues between the characters are all in their original dialect. With the use of slang words, the only difference being that of spelling and grammar.  This is very typical of Hurston’s writings as well as of most African American writers. These writers mimic the voice of their Black characters in dialogue and speech.  The change in dialect is emphasized through the change of spelling. Most significant is the use of original terms and slang of the time, including idioms and language that was popular during the early 1900’s in African American culture.  The first black idiom, “his mouf is cut cross ways” can be self- explanatory (Hurston).  Missie May tells this to her husband as she attempts to convince him that Slemmons could possibly be lying about his lavish and expensive lifestyle, through his boasting and bragging.   By telling her husband that, “his mouf is cut cross ways”, Missie May is explaining the similarities of Slemmons mouth compared to anyone else’s.  Slemmons mouth works the same, it is cut side ways and opens and closes like any other human. As such, Slemmons therefore could open his mouth and tell a lie like anyone else.

Additional idioms are found within the story. One idiom used a few times throughout the story is, “you makin’ feet for shoes”.  Written in the 1930’s, certain terms weren’t popular then as they are now.  It is said that telling someone that another is pregnant was forbidden. With this in mind, some would use words like, ‘expecting’ or ‘with child’.  Here, Hurston uses the Black idiom, “makin feet for shoes” to explain Missie May’s pregnancy.  Another Black idiom seen isn’t as popular and slightly difficult to figure out.  “Her ma used to fan her foot round right smart” (Hurston).  This idiom is used to explain the behavior of Missie May’s mother, who held a reputation for sleeping around which scorned her as promiscuous. The key term for this idiom is “fan her foot”. It is associated with the image of a woman’s reaction during sexual intercourse. The use of black idioms and dialect is a unique way to draw in the culture and community of the small Black settlement. It furthermore works to create originality into the story.

Slemmons, although he had a small role, made a significant impact to the story.  Flaunting around gilded-bits, Slemmons acts like the seductive snake as he causes havoc in the happy home.  His introduction into the story caused Joe to be dissatisfied with his normally happy life.  The reader gets a glimpse of this as Hurston describes Joe attempting to mimic Slemmons walk and stature.  Joe, even admits his feelings to Missie May, “Ah know Ah can’t hold no light to Otis Slemmons”, explaining that he wishes he “had a build lak [Slemmons] got” (Hurston). Joe envies Slemmons due to his gold, his fat gut, and traveling adventures. Slemmons.  Slemmons is a rich man from the big city who represents power and sophistication. He has experienced the world in many ways, including owning his own business. All of this is noted despite the fact that Slemmons is an outsider who doesn’t fit into the community. This is due to Slemmons use of “fancy Chicago talk” having “gold teethes”, and “fine clothes” (Hurston).  In most ways, Slemmons is a contrast to the tone and quality of life that Joe and Missie May have created.

Although it is Missie May who commits adultery with Slemmons, it is Joe who is first attracted to Slemmons. Missie May, on the other hand, was the first to see the gild in his character and personality. Missie May calls Slemmons a “puzzlegut” because of his large size, while Joe admires his gut because “rich mens is got some belly on ‘em” (Hurston).  Joe tells Missie May that Slemmons wears “fine clothes”, while Missie May exclaims that Slemmons “look no better in his clothes than you do in yourn” (Hurston).  Despite their argument, it is the envy and admiration that Joe has for Slemmons that causes Missie May to practice infidelity.  Missie May began to see Slemmons in the same way that Joe did.  This allowed her to be seduced by Slemmons, to be caught in his charm and blinded by his counterfeit gold.

Ultimately, gold becomes a symbol of betrayal that remains evident throughout the story.  When Joe finds Slemmons and Missy May together; Slemmons offers Joe gold to spare his life.  Saying this, Joe snatches off Slemmons jewelry and money, to hold on to it, using it as a symbol to Missie May as evidence of her betrayal.  Joe receives what Missie May wanted to get for him, the gold coins. However it isn’t in the manner that Missie May would have liked.  Instead of bringing the couple together, making them both rich and bringing more happiness to the already happy home, it puts their happiness and marriage on hold.  During breakfast, Joe puts it on the table setting it between them.  This shows separation of marriage, household, and happiness.  It silences Joe and brings Missie May to tears.  Also, once the gold coin is in Joe’s position their game playing and Saturday ritual is put to an end.  Later, when Joe puts the gold piece under Missie May’s pillow after sex, Missie May becomes upset, as she compares herself to a “woman in the long house” because she felt as if Joe was paying her for sex (Hurston).

It isn’t until the near end of the story that Missie May discovers that the coin isn’t gold at all, it is simply a gilded-piece -a half dollar painted gold.  Missie May feels guiltier for her actions and puts the gilded-piece in Joe’s Sunday pants pocket for keeps.   Joe realizes that Missie May is “makin feet for shoes”, “he thrust his hand deep into his pocket and fingered something there” (Hurston).  Again, this symbolized the infidelity.  In this scene Joe can’t help but rub the gilded-piece because he can only hope the child that Missie May is carrying, will be his own.  After the child is born Joe goes to the candy store to pick up candy kisses for Missie May. He finally hands the coin over to the clerk for purchase.  He gives up the one symbol that reminds Joe of Missie May’s mistrust. This scene symbolizes the instance of forgiveness. Joe has moved on from the situation and he is willing to forgive, as he spends the gilded-piece on treats for his wife and son.

The Gilded Six-Bit is a story of truth and disillusion.  It is a story that can be told around the world and in any setting as it is full of apt understanding of basic human nature and culture. It provides an under tone of myth and fairytale and ending with a moral.  The moral of the story can obviously be seen, as it is associated with greed, adultery, and the false lives of others.  Hurston uses basic values and traditions of African American culture and life to tell her story as illusion verses reality is made reference to throughout.  The reader became aware of the reality of Joe and Missie May, their happiness, and the thickness of love and marriage.  The disillusion appeared with the entrance of Slemmons as he lied to the people and community about his money and wealth. He created a false illusion of prosperity.  Prosperity, money, and happiness are items that most strive for in life.  Although Missie May and Joe were happy and content with their lives, it was only natural for both to want to seek more than what they have for a better opportunity. Gold then becomes the ultimate disillusion of reality. Ironically enough, Slemmons gilded-six-bit, seventy-five cents, is worth more than Joe’s silver dollar.  Missie May went after Slemmons under the illusion of value, when all along Joe’s silver held a larger value than Slemmons gold.  It was the temptation of gold that drove Missie May as well as Joe to the admiration of Slemmons.

References

Hurston, Z (1933). The Gilded Six Bit. Retrieved from: http://www.bhscpa.org/0708HW/bells/bellamlit/thegildedsixbits.pdf

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About Russia Robinson

I am an independent freelance writer and free thinker. I strive to use my writing talents to benefit the greater good of society, one word, one sentence, one page at a time. Originally from Richmond, California I attended San Francisco State University receiving a BA in English Creative Writing and American Literature in 2004. After this I attended post graduate studies in 2008 at Georgia’s Kennesaw State University in Technical Writing. With an academic background in English, I have spent more than 10 years’ helping young people succeed. This can be seen in my career background in education and mental health. I am a certifiable Language Arts teacher for the state of Georgia. I also worked in social services including juvenile mental health treatment services and counseling. As a result, I understand the diversity of problems people face in their everyday lives. With words put together like so, I promote equality and a healthy society for all people regardless of individual differences. Conducting research, writing articles, essays, and blogging, I push to educate others about various issues that affect people. I also do this creatively through short stories, poems, pictures, and a novel in progress. My hobbies and interest are reading and learning. I enjoy all things art and all things nature. From camping and astronomy to photography and cooking, I enjoy sighting seeing and socializing just as much as I enjoy curling in bed with a good book or binge watching TV.
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