“The Gilded Six-Bits” is fundamentally a story about home—specifically, the ways in which domesticity can create and sustain love. Hurston’s narrative centers on the interactions between newlyweds Joe and Missie May, whose partnership is initially characterized and bolstered by various loving routines. When an outsider disrupts these routines, however, the couple’s relationship is tested. By exploring how Joe and Missie May navigate and ultimately overcome such disruption, Hurston suggests that domestic customs create a feeling of kinship and comfort more powerful than the fleeting excitement of unfamiliarity.
Hurston begins by describing the setting as “a Negro yard around a Negro house in a Negro settlement.” The author’s words immediately make clear that her story is rooted in the cultural particularities of Eatonville, a “Negro settlement” in Florida. The comfortable familiarity of this settled world provides the backdrop for the characters’ relationships. Hurston evokes a strong sense of delight in the regularity and normalcy of the Banks’ own home, which is initially described as a tranquil, orderly place that is lovingly cared for, with “a mess of homey flowers” that bloom “cheerily.” There is “something happy about” the house, which is filled with sunshine after its weekly scouring, has its yard raked in a pattern, and even features shelf-paper trimmed with care.
Against this ordinary yet lovely backdrop, the Bankses play a game wherein Joe throws silver dollars in the open door for Missie May to pick up and pile beside her plate. This game is at the heart of their domestic routine—“it was this way every Saturday afternoon,” the narrator remarks—and further adds to the story’s overarching sense of place and rootedness. This sense is further reinforced through the details Hurston gives about the couple’s meals together—perhaps the most familiar and recurrent element of domestic life. The pleasure Joe and Missie Mae take in sharing food echoes and deepens their marital bond; Hurston writes that though there was “very little talk during” meals, that which was said “flaunted” affection. Domestic life as a whole, for the pair, “was the best part of life . . . everything was right.” Hurston presents the happiness, simple beauty, and order of the Banks home and routine as a reflection of the health of its inhabitants’ relationships—a reflection that, it follows, suffers when the characters’ relationships suffer.
The goodness of the Banks’ cherished routine is eventually disrupted by an outsider. When Joe excitedly tells his wife about Eatonville’s newly-opened ice cream parlor, there is immediately a certain sense of foreignness and mystery surrounding its proprietor, Otis D. Slemmons. He is “of spots and places,” Joe tells Missie May, but not any place in particular. Both refer to him as a “stray,” emphasizing his comparative lack of rootedness as well as the suspicion that engenders. Likewise, Slemmons’ clothing, language, and manner clearly differentiate him from the other residents and hint at the ways in which their familiar world is about to be disrupted.
Nevertheless, Joe is intrigued by the strange, apparently wealthy Slemmons and the different lifestyle he represents. Joe is the one to arrange the couple’s first trip to the ice cream parlor, and afterward he speaks effusively of Slemmons’ “Chicago talk” and the new words they learned that evening. Later, of course, Missie May will prove to have been seduced by Slemmons as well. When Joe gets off early from work and sneaks home to surprise her, the first clue that something is wrong comes when he bumps a pile of dishes and knocks something down in the dark kitchen. Things are already out of place even before Joe discovers Slemmons in their bedroom. By associating Slemmons with a sense of foreignness and disorder, Hurston suggests the intrigue and danger of succumbing to the allure of the unfamiliar.
Domestic routine ultimately saves Joe and Missie May from the estrangement they feel in the wake of Missie May’s infidelity. Even though Joe is “strange” to her after he discovers her betrayal, and their usual play and banter are missing, Missie May finds relief in continuing to tend to Joe’s needs as she always has—cooking for him and rubbing him with lineament oil when he isn’t well. As time passes and the two continue living together, Joe eventually softens towards his wife. Following the birth of their son, Joe’s shopping for “all the staples” (that is, their traditional foods), buying Missie May’s favorite sweets, and finally resuming the silver dollar game signal that routine is getting back to normal, and thus that healing has occurred. Things are not exactly the same—Missie May, recovering from childbirth, can’t run to the door yet to collect the coins—but the familiar shape of their life together is back in place.
The appearance of Slemmons certainly unsettles and disorients Joe and Missie May—near the story’s end, Joe remarks to the candy store clerk that he has “been round in spots and places,” a description previously applied to Slemmons. But domestic routines ultimately guide the couple back to each other by reminding them of the beauty of the life they built together. In this way, rootedness in the domestic triumphs over the strange and unfamiliar. For Hurston, cheerful homes, playful affection, and delicious meals point to the value of grounding oneself in particular places, cultures, and customs. Such grounding creates a foundational sense of loyalty that is able to withstand the damaging shakeups from outsiders who would attempt to tear down the home a couple has built together.
Domesticity and Routine ThemeTracker
Domesticity and Routine Quotes in The Gilded Six Bits
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.
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.
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.
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.
“Hello, Joe,” the clerk greeted him. “Ain’t seen you in a long time.”
“Nope, Ah ain’t been heah. Been round in spots and places.”
“Want some of them molasses kisses you always buy?”
“Yessuh.” He threw the gilded half dollar on the counter. “Will dat spend?”
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.”