The Gilded Six-Bits
By Zora Neale Hurston (1903-1960) 
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Point of View
Plot Summary
Title Questions
Figures of Speech
Glossary of Terms
Questions, Writing Topics
Biography of Hurston
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2011
Type of Work and Publication Year

......."The Gilded Six-Bits" is a short story about a marriage jeopardized by a foolish indiscretion. Story magazine published it in 1933.


.......The 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 out. 
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." 

Point of View

.......Hurston 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 passage:

.......Missie 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. 
.......She 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. 
.......The 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."

Plot Summary

.......The 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.
.......After 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.
.......While 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. 
......."All 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. . . .”
.......According to Slemmons, white women in Chicago gave him the gold coins.
.......When 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." 
.......(Here, the story jumps forward. Joe and Missie May are on their way home from the ice cream parlor.)
.......“Didn't Ah say ole Otis was swell?” Joe says. “Can't he talk Chicago talk? 
.......Missie 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." 
.......Joe asks where a poor man like him would get “gold money”?
.......Missie 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 else. 
.......One 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.
.......After 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.”
.......Missie 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." 
.......Joe 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 crying.
......."Cause 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—"
.......Joe, 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 you." 
.......During 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'?" 
.......She 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.
.......“Ah don't choose none, Ah thank yuh," she says.
.......When 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. 
.......“Don't look back lak Lot's wife and turn to salt," he says.
.......Days 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.”
.......One 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. 
.......While 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 him.
.......But 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.
.......The 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.
.......Weeks 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.
.......“You reckon, Missie May?”
.......“Who else could it look lak?”
.......Six 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 May's.
.......On 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. 
.......“He 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.”
.......When 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. 


.......The 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 Gold

.......When 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. 
.......After 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.


.......Otis 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. 


.......Several 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.

Title Questions

Q.  What is the meaning of gilded?
A.  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." 

Figures of Speech

.......Following are examples of figures of speech in the story. For definitions of figures of speech, see Literary Terms.


steps scrubbed white
Big pitcher of buttermilk beaded with pale drops of butter 
pick up and pile beside her plate at dinner
dying dawn saw him hustling home
a pone of spicy potato pudding. 
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. 
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.
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.
"Little feet" is a term for a baby.
Glossary of Terms in the Story

Eatonville: Town in Orange County, Florida. Blacks founded and incorporated the town on August 15, 1887. 
chessy cat: Allusion to the Cheshire cat in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865), by Lewis Carroll (1832-1898). It was known for its mischievous smile.
Jurdan: Jordan River. In dialogue at the supper table, Joe says, "Ah could . . . drink Jurdan dry."
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.
Mister Cadillac: Henry Leland (1843-1932), developer of the Cadillac motor car. He named it after the founder of Detroit, Michigan—Antoine de La Mothe Cadillac (1658-1730).
Mister Packard: James Ward Packard (1863-1928) or William Doud Packard (1861-1923, brothers. The Packards founded the Packard Motor Car Company and the Packard Electric Company.
Samson: Israelite 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.

Study Questions and Writing Topics

  • Write an essay focusing on how Zora Neale Hurston reveals the qualities of Joe and Missie May through their dialogue.
  • What do you most admire about Joe?
  • What do you most admire about Missie May?
  • 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.