Sexuality within Joe and Missie May’s relationship is a lively, creative force, reflected in the beauty of their home, the playfulness of their interactions, and in Joe’s desire for parenthood. At the same time, Hurston portrays sexuality as corrupting when expressed outside of appropriate channels—namely, marriage. Marriage, Hurston suggests, provides an environment within which sexuality is healthy rather than a source of temptation. Above all, Hurston argues that sexuality is at once a creative and destructive act, one that is natural and beautiful when expressed within the bond of a meaningful relationship yet deeply destructive when treated as a transactional exchange.
Hurston paints a vivid picture of marital love and desire expressed through everyday life. She opens the story by describing a light-filled, orderly, and appealing home environment. Immediately thereafter, she introduces Missie May as a sexually attractive, fertile young woman, whose “breasts thrust forward aggressively” as she bathes. Hurston ties Missie May’s youthful beauty to the loveliness of the home she and Joe have built together, setting the tone for the positive role of sexuality within the Banks’ marriage. Hurston further characterizes the dynamic between husband and wife as “a furious mass of male and female energy.” The mood of their marriage is one of joyful, mischievous teasing, laden with sexual tension. Their affection continues to be expressed within the context of happy domestic routines and a cheerful give-and-take. A delicious dinner is marked by “banter that…flaunted” mutual affection, and their shared physical attraction is repeatedly affirmed as Joe “[toys] with Missie May’s ear” and the couple exchanges kisses at the table. At the midpoint of the story, as Joe walks home from work, the sight of the moon “made him yearn painfully for Missie May,” and he dreams of children; in fact, “creation obsessed him.” Joe’s attentiveness to natural beauty and desire to have a baby underscores the healthy potential of sexuality. Hurston thus initially portrays sexuality as a vibrant force that both nourishes the marital bond and is nourished by it. It can also lead to new life, both literally and within struggling relationships.
At the same time, Hurston suggests that, wrongly acted upon, sexuality has the potential to cause great harm. Slemmons embodies a sexual mystique of his own. The stranger first notices Missie May’s beauty, passing and tipping his hat to her while she scours steps. Relating this to Joe, Missie May comments, “Ah thought Ah never seen him befo’.” Already, Slemmons is characterized by a sense of intrigue. Joe seems to recognize this. When he describes Slemmons to his wife, he can’t let go of the subject of Slemmons’ prowess with women, even when Missie May interjects with kisses and spirited arguments.
Parading Missie May at Slemmons’ parlor becomes a fixed part of the couple’s weekly routine. This public display of his wife’s beauty brings Joe great satisfaction—it helps make up “the best part of life.” Yet Hurston follows Joe’s reflections with the revelation of Missie May’s adultery, suggesting that the weekly “parading” has helped undermine the very possessiveness Joe prizes. Joe’s longings for his wife and for procreation are then abruptly thrown off course when he arrives home and discovers Missie May’s adultery. The threat posed by extramarital sexuality becomes explicit, as Joe strikes Slemmons in fury and Slemmons flees in disgrace.
When Joe and Missie May later sleep together for the first time since the latter’s infidelity, the marital act is impersonally described (the narrator states simply that “youth triumphed”) and is punctuated by the coldness of Joe’s gesture when he leaves the gilded coin, the symbol of Missie May’s transgression, in “payment”—thereby likening his wife to a prostitute. After months of little to no sexual contact, however, procreation opens a path to the restoration of the Banks’ troubled marriage. Missie May becomes pregnant, and despite Joe’s unspoken doubts about the child’s paternity, he ultimately acknowledges the baby as his son. Furthermore, his mother’s approving comments—that Missie May is “gointer have plenty mo’ [children]”—signal not only her newfound respect for Missie May, but of hope for their marriage going forward.
Hurston paints a complex picture of sexual desire in “The Gilded Six-Bits.” It nourishes the most beautiful aspects of the Banks’ relationship and bears the potential for children, yet proves dangerous when flaunted outside of marriage. Joe’s insecurity leads him to show off his wife’s beauty in public, which in turn leads to Missie May’s betrayal of her husband—leaving them with “not the substance of marriage [but] the outside show.” Even when the couple reunites sexually, sex alone is not sufficient to heal this breach; it must be wedded to the “substance”—restored trust and enduring affection—in order to fulfill the life-giving potential Hurston celebrates.
Sexuality and Marriage ThemeTracker
Sexuality and Marriage 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.
“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.
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.
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.
“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.”