On the surface, Hurston’s “The Gilded Six-Bits” seems a rather simple melodrama. The story opens with Misse May Banks bathing, waiting for her husband, Joe, to come home. He enters with his weekly ritual of throwing nine silver dollars into the kitchen. The newlywed couple play fight and flirt. After dinner, Joe tells Missie May about Slemmon, a supposedly wealthy ice cream-palor owner who had recently moved to Eatonville. That night Joe introduces his wife to Slemmon. The betrayal! Joe comes home to find his wife in bed with Slemmon. In the midst their scuffle, Joe grabs Slemmon’s gold-plated fifty cent piece. The couple become estranged for a period. One morning, after making love, Joe leaves the gold-plated fifty cent piece on the bed for Missie May. As she examines it further, she discovers that the piece is only gilded gold, having only a thin layer of gold sheeting over it. (A fake, in other words!) The story concludes with Missie May giving birth to a son, and Joe continuing his tradition of throwing money in the doorway of their home.
“The Ring of Singing Metal on Wood”
What a strange ritual Missie May and Joe shared: Joe’s throwing nine silver dollars through the doorway before coming into their home? Hurston in this story explores the economics underpinning marriage, how the roles in the couple’s marriage are defined through financial transactions. To Joe’s tossing the money through the door, Missie May playfully responds: “Nobody’s ain’t gointer be chuckin’ money at me and Ah not doe’em nothin.” Missie May, even a mock fight they have, points to the financial exchange between husband and wife.
In staying with this flirtatious ritual, Joe must provide the nine silver dollars as almost an entry fee. In away, this exchange reinforces the home is Missie May’s domain. As she reminds, “Ah’m a real wife, not no dress and breath.” In other words, Missie May’s status as a “real wife” comes from her efficiency at household chores. What Hurston does in her account of the Bank’s marriage exposes the Gender Division of Labor, how in modern Western understanding of marriage women’s labor is confined to the domestic realm, while men work in the public sphere.
Missie May’s betrayal of Joe, her having sex with Slemmon, is a betrayal on two levels then. First, on an emotional level, Missie May commits adultery. On another level, she violates this Gender Division of Labor. “Oh, Joe, honey, he said he [Slemmon] wuz gointer gimme dat gold money and he jes’ kept on after me-,” Missie May explain that she slept with Slemmon as an financial arrangement. She would then be the one to bring money into the home, not Joe.
The ending provides a questionable restoration of Joe and Missie May’s happiness. Having given birth to a son, Joe travels to Orlando to purchase her some candies and presents, as he had done before. When he comes home, he throws 15 silver dollars across the front door. Missie May’s value has increased. I think what Hurston does so well in this story in exposing the disturbing aspect of Joe and Missie May’s flirtations in the beginning of the story. Hurston shows Joe being as much at fault for perpetuating the economic exchange within in marriage. Like Slemmon, he too engages in buying Missie May’s labor, sexual and domestic. The final scene loses its romanticized ideal and is reduced to Joe’s paying Missie May for her labor.