Hurston initially introduces her characters as happy despite limited resources. When Slemmons appears, however, Joe and Missie May begin to imagine possessing traits, status, and means they do not have. Subsequent discontent leads Missie May to be unfaithful to Joe, threatening their relationship and disrupting its simple pleasures. Hurston argues that while having enough money for basic comforts is important, the desire for excess wealth or status is a corrosive force ultimately at odds with genuine happiness.
Although the Bankses are content, Hurston makes clear from the opening of the story that money is nevertheless an ever-present concern in their lives. They, along with the rest of Eatonville, rely on “the payroll of the G. and G. Fertilizer works” for their continued sustenance. This reveals Eatonville to be a solidly working-class town, and immediately establishes the Banks family’s financial status as somewhat precarious, in that it is entirely reliant on an outside company. Nevertheless, the Bankses have enough money for simple material pleasures that provide some of the core delights of their marriage. On payday, for example, Joe fills his pockets with treasures for his wife to find—small indulgences like gum, sweet soap, and candy kisses, all of which are prizes in his weekly game of tossing silver dollars to Missie May.
This game further speaks to Joe’s status as provider, as Missie May stacks the silver dollars next to her plate while the couple shares a simple yet bountiful meal together. Hurston takes care to describe the meal in concrete detail, mentioning the “big pitcher of buttermilk…ham hock atop a mound of string beans and new potatoes, and…a pone of spicy potato pudding,” over which the couple playfully fights for seconds. These images suggest abundance and signal shared pride in what Joe can provide amidst humble circumstances. Though they are not wealthy, there is no initial suggestion of lack in the Banks’ day-to-day lives. Moreover, Joe and Missie May have enough “money put away” that they can afford to have children soon. Hurston thus establishes that money is not in itself a corrosive influence; on the contrary, it makes possible some of the central joys of married life.
When Missie May and Joe begin to covet things they don’t have, however, their relationship is imperiled. When Joe initially describes Slemmons, he is fixated on aspects of the ice cream proprietor’s appearance, which he associates with wealth and status. Responding to Missie May’s skeptical reaction, Joe says, “He ain’t puzzle-gutted, honey. He jes’ got a corperation…All rich mens is got some belly on ‘em.” These physical markers of affluence have clear racial overtones: “Dat make ‘m look lak a rich white man,” Joe notes, adding, “he tole us how de white womens in Chicago give ‘im all dat gold money”—a sign that they are also associated with sexual desirability. Joe envies these traits, trying to imitate Slemmons’ paunch and swagger while Missie May is out of the room. Even as Joe covets the external markers of Slemmons’ supposed wealth, however, he appears to remain content with what he has, telling his wife, “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, in contrast, ponders how they might stumble upon lost money, musing, “if we wuz to find it, you could wear some ‘thout havin’ no gang of womens.” Eventually, Missie May proves so enticed by wealth that she chooses to sleep with Slemmons for his gold, tearfully defending herself with the argument that Slemmons “said he wuz gointer give me dat gold money…”
After Joe discovers his wife’s adultery, the pattern of their life changes: “There were no more Saturday romps. No ringing silver dollars to stack beside her plate. No pockets to rifle.” Missie May’s act has struck at Joe’s status as provider, as well as at the affirming household customs that celebrated and were sustained by that status. In keeping with that shift, Joe’s pocket now contains a relatively worthless coin taken from Slemmons, symbolizing the potential loss of the genuine goodness within their marriage. “In fact,” the narrator notes, “the yellow coin in his trousers was like a monster hiding in the cave of his pockets to destroy [Missie May].” After the couple finally sleeps together again, Joe taunts Missie May about her superficial desire by leaving the gilded coin under her pillow. Only then does Missie May realize she has been tricked by the allure of fake gold. She is also humiliated by Joe’s rebuke, thinking he has offered fifty cents “as if she were any woman in the long house.” Hurston shows that because Missie May coveted wealth—or, rather, its trappings—she lost sight of money’s healthy function within the Banks’ life. Where having enough money once facilitated happiness and thriving, now the desire for excess money has produced betrayal and estrangement.
Joe ultimately “redeems” the gilded coin by using it to purchase a large amount of Missie May’s favorite candy. His presentation of fifteen half-dollars at the end of the story likewise signals the restoration of their relationship—their Saturday romps have regained their place at the heart of the marriage—while also reasserting his role as the one who can truly provide for his wife. When Missie May turns away from covetous desires and recognizes anew the goodness of what they already have, money is restored to its proper role within the household, and the couple is likewise restored to one another.
Money in “The Gilded Six-Bits” helps secure wellbeing and makes ordinary family joys possible. But when characters confuse wealth with wellbeing, the effects are disastrous. Only when Missie May recognizes the emptiness of excess riches can her relationship with Joe be restored. In this way, Hurston argues that while money is important, coveting wealth tends to threaten the very bonds that money is meant to serve.
Money, Class, and Power ThemeTracker
Money, Class, and Power 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.
“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.”
As Joe rounded the lake on his way home, a lean moon rode the lake in a silver boat.... It made him yearn painfully for Missie. Creation obsessed him. He thought about children. They had been married more than a year now. They had money put away. They ought to be making little feet for shoes.
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.
“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.”