Hurston contrasts deception with authenticity throughout “The Gilded Six-Bits.” The title itself—which refers to coins of low value covered with a thin layer of gold leaf—invokes the notion of fakery and portends the betrayal that will test Joe and Missie May’s marriage. Yet even as Hurston’s story highlights the many ways in which appearances frequently contrast with reality, it ultimately suggests that genuine trust can withstand even the basest deception.
Deception frames the story from its very beginning. Joe and Missie May’s weekly game is a mere show of hiding, giving chase, and fighting, an elaborate play-acting they have developed together. Even so, this happy charade is used to reaffirm their love for one another. Hurston again evokes this sense of playful deception during Joe and Missie May’s meals together, during which their conversations “consisted of banter that pretended to deny affection but in reality flaunted it.” Through this relationship, Hurston immediately establishes the frequent difference that exists between appearances and reality. The love and tenderness behind Joe and Missie May’s “joyful mischief” further contrasts it with the destructive form of mischief soon to be introduced by Otis Slemmons.
Slemmons literally embodies fakery. The first detail given about him is his “mouth full of gold teethes,” and he constantly flaunts his supposed wealth: “a five-dollar gold piece for a stick-pin and…a ten-dollar gold piece on his watch.” While Joe asserts that this makes Slemmons seem like a rich white man and wishes he could emulate this look, Missie May, far more skeptical of the ice cream proprietor, tells Joe, “Ford and Rockefeller and dis Slemmons…kin be as many-gutted as dey please, Ah’m satisfied wid you jes lak you is, baby.” When Joe insists that what he is saying about Slemmons is true because “he tole us so hisself,” Missie May responds, "Dat don't make it so. His mouf is cut cross-ways, ain't it? Well, he kin lie jes' lak anybody else."
Having already established a world in which appearances frequently contrast with reality, Hurston’s initial introduction of Slemmons forebodes his trickery. He pretends to be worldly and wealthy, but—much like Joe and Missie May’s games—his looks are deceiving. Slemmons’ deception seduces Missie May, and, in turn, ultimately strips her marriage of pretense. Following Missie May’s infidelity—itself yet another form of deceit—she and Joe stop playing their coin-toss game. As it had been an early symbol of their playfulness and devotion, the disappearance of this game is one of the most devastating effects of Slemmons’ interference in their lives. When Missie May gives birth to a child, however, Joe ultimately takes Missie May at her word and accepts the newborn baby as his own, even though Hurston leaves the question of paternity somewhat ambiguous. Joe’s acceptance of the baby is an affirmation of his love for and forgiveness of Missie May. Deceit and betrayal have laid bare the truth of their marriage and revealed genuine love at its heart, whereas Slemmons, like his fake gold piece, promises much while ultimately proving to be worthless.
Throughout the story, Hurston plays with the differences between appearances and reality, finally using this device—symbolized by the gilded coin—to reveal the truth of Joe and Missie May’s marriage. The ultimate resumption of the coin-toss game upon Joe’s forgiving his wife is the surest signal that the effects of Slemmons’ deceit have been overcome; ironically, only when mutual trust has been re-established can the couple playfully deceive each other once again. The charade that opens the story, however—marked by the “furious…energy” of the tussling pair—contrasts with the more muted version at the end of the story, where a weakened Missie May “crept…as quickly as she could” to claim Joe’s coins. This shows that their newlywed innocence, while strained by deceit, has given way to a more weathered yet wiser love founded on trust and forgiveness. Their love is not simply a cheap commodity with a pretty veneer, but an enduring force that can withstand the ugliness of betrayal.
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Appearances, Reality, and Trust Quotes in The Gilded Six Bits
She had not seen the big tall man come stealing in the gate and creep up the walk grinning happily at the joyful mischief he was about to commit. But she knew that it was her husband throwing silver dollars in the door for her to pick up and pile beside her plate at dinner. It was this way every Saturday afternoon.
A new man done come heah from Chicago and he done got a place and took and opened it up for a ice cream parlor.... Mister Otis D. Slemmons, of spots and places—Memphis, Chicago, Jacksonville, Philadelphia and so on.
“His mouf is cut cross-ways, ain’t it? Well, he kin lie jes’ lak anybody else.”
“Good Lawd, Missie! You womens sho is hard to sense into things. He’s got a five-dollar gold piece for a stick-pin and he got a ten-dollar gold piece on his watch chain and his mouf is jes’ crammed full of gold teethes…And womens give it all to ‘im.”
That was the best part of life—going home to Missie May. Their white-washed house, the mock battle on Saturday, the dinner and ice cream parlor afterwards, church on Sunday nights when Missie May out-dressed any woman in town—all, everything was right.
By the match light he could see the man’s legs fighting with his breeches in his frantic desire to get them on. He had both chance and time to kill the intruder in his helpless condition…but he was too weak to take action. 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.
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.
Before morning, youth triumphed and Missie exulted. But the next day, as she joyfully made up their bed, beneath her pillow she found the piece of money with the bit of chain attached…She took it into her hands with trembling and saw first thing that it was no gold piece. It was a gilded half dollar.
Dat’s yourn all right, if you never git another one, dat un is yourn. And you know Ah’m mighty proud too, son, cause Ah never thought well of you marryin’ Missie May cause her ma used tuh fan her foot round right smart and Ah been mighty skeered dat Missie May wuz gointer git misput on her road.
Back in Eatonville, Joe reached his own front door. There was the ring of singing metal on wood. Fifteen times. Missie May couldn’t run to the door, but she crept there as quickly as she could.
“Joe Banks, Ah hear you chunkin’ money in mah do’way. You wait till Ah got mah strength back and Ah’m gointer fix you for dat.”