31 Days of Stories 2013, Day 16: “The Gilded Six-Bits” by Zora Neale Hurston

May 16, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Complete Stories

Zora_Neale_Hurston_The_Complete_StoriesWriting in the anthology A Modern Southern Reader, Ben Forkner and Patrick Samway identify the characteristics they feel distinguish the 20th-century short fiction of the American South – a preoccupation with history, memory, and locale grounded in “a new Southern attitude toward language, especially its unusual combination of fascination and wariness when addressing the power of what has been called ‘the speaking voice.'” This “new Southern attitude toward language,” the editors assert, finds its genesis in the oral tradition, but also transcends that tradition by filtering it through a carefully constructed craft:

A strong oral tradition – both black and white – certainly helps account for some of the special qualities of the Southern story, but it must be remembered that the modern story is always a deliberately crafted work of art, and that the Southern writer this century is fully conscious of belonging to the modern literary tradition as well as to a specific society and region.

Both aspects of the Southern short story – the debt to an oral tradition steeped in “the speaking voice” and a fidelity to literary craft – are evident in Zora Neale Hurston’s 1933 story “The Gilded Six-Bits,” which also shares certain elements in common with Emma Donoghue’s “The Body Swap.” Both stories employ local vernacular to help develop character, and both involve thematic attention to the subjects of money and counterfeiting.

The theme of money in Hurston’s story is embodied in the person of Otis D. Slemmons, a Northerner who has arrived in the small town of Eatonville, Florida, and opened an ice cream parlour. Slemmons is the picture of wealth, at least in the eyes of Joe Banks, an Eatonville resident who works at the local fertilizer plant. “Yeah, he’s up-to-date,” Joe tells his wife, Missie May, about Slemmons. “He got de finest clothes Ah ever seen on a colored man’s back.” Slemmons also has numerous gold teeth and a prominent belly, also a sign of wealth in Joe’s eyes. “Dat make ’m look lak a rich white man,” Joe tells Missie May. “All rich mens is got some belly on ’em.” Joe’s wife demurs, insisting that Slemmons is not all that Joe makes him out to be: “Aw, he don’t look no better in his clothes than you do in yourn. He got a puzzlegut on ’im and he so chuckleheaded he got a pone behind his neck.”

Missie May’s attempt to validate her husband testifies to one of the key characteristics of the couple: they are satisfied in their marriage. Indeed, “The Gilded Six-Bits” is something of an anomaly in the American fiction canon: a story about a couple who genuinely love one another. The happiness the couple experiences in the opening pages of the story – the games they play, the teasing way they talk, the laughter and indulgences – is not simply a hook on which to hang a veil of tragedy. Although their love is tested in the course of the story, it is authentic and, we come to understand, enduring.

This is apparent from the opening lines, which locate the story in “a Negro yard around a Negro house in a Negro settlement.” And, importantly, “there was something happy about the place.” The tenants clearly take pride in maintaining their dwelling: the fence is whitewashed, the steps scrubbed, the yard raked, and the garden features a “mess of homey flowers planted without a plan but blooming cheerily from their helter-skelter places.”

So enamoured is Missie May of Joe that she claims not to be able to see what other women see in Otis D. Slemmons: “Ah wouldn’t give ’im a wink if de sheriff wuz after ’im.” Joe, on the other hand, locates Slemmons’ allure in his apparent wealth: “Well, he tole us how de white womens in Chicago give ’im all dat gold money. So he don’t ’low nobody to touch it at all. Not even put dey finger on it. Dey tole ’im not to. You kin make ’miration at it, but don’t tech it.”

Missie May, however, is not immune to the charms of the weaselly Slemmons; when Joe returns home from work early one night, he finds the fat Northerner in bed with his wife. Missie May’s explanation for her dalliance is that Slemmons seduced her with promises of wealth: “Oh Joe, honey, he said he wuz gointer give me dat gold money and he jes’ kept on after me –”

Although Hurston risks losing the reader’s sympathy in Missie May at this point, it is clearly Slemmons who is the villain here, acting in the manner of the serpent in the garden, tempting a poverty-stricken Southern Black woman with the lure of gold that would secure a promising future for her and her husband. The fact that Slemmons’ wealth is chimerical is not revealed until late in the story: the gold stickpin and watch chain he wears turn out to be gilded and worthless.

What is significant for Hurston is that the infidelity, while creating an obvious source of tension for a time, is insufficient to sever the bond the couple shares. Missie May conceives a child, who is clearly Joe’s, and this only serves to bring the two even closer together. The heartache that Missie May and Joe experience arises in large part from each person assuming that the other has fallen out of love as a result of the transgression; the truth is both prove more than willing to forgive and put the incident behind them.

In an assessment of Hurston’s story, Kimberly Renee quotes Valerie Boyd:

Hurston breaks ranks with other writers of her day by creating in Missie May a black female character who is sexually aggressive – and transgressive – but who is not a whore. Fitting into none of the predominant stereotypes of black women – mammy, tragic mulatto, or promiscuous Jezebel – Missie May is a sexually complex woman (with “stiff young breasts” that “thrust forward aggressively,” Hurston points out) who simply makes a mistake.

“Missie May,” Renee writes, “is flawed, but not to the point of being tragic.” And Hurston’s carefully crafted story is not a tragedy, but a vibrant tale of enduring love.

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