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Zora Neale Hurston–The Gilded Six-Bits

Zora-Neale-Hurston_sOn its surface, Hurston’s story, “The Gilded Six-Bits,” is a simple tale of an imperfect marriage. Missie May wants to provide for her husband Joe something that she can never achieve honestly. She sleeps with the slimy Mr. Slemmons. Joe discovers the rendezvous, leading to prolonged chilliness in the relationship. Eventually, Joe and Missie May manage to reconcile and matters return, as nearly as possible, to the idyllic relationship described at the story’s outset. “And they all lived happily ever after.”

I’d have to say that it takes a good deal more art and talent to successfully bring off a story in which people patch up their hurts than it does to relate a disintegrating relationship. A story such as this one could seem facile and sentimental. In Hurston’s hands, it does not. She deserves a good bit of admiration for that skill.

Given Hurston’s heritage, the daughter of a Baptist minister, it should come as no surprise that she deals in matters of morality and employs Biblical allusions frequently. Certainly, the Biblical antecedents for this story could be found without too much trouble.

When one thinks of the Biblical and marital infidelity, the first association is probably David and Bathsheba. This is, of course, a rather imperfect parallel since Bathsheba, far from being enticed by an ice-cream salesman’s gaudy bits of jewelry, is summoned by David. To the best of our knowledge, Bathsheba’s only fault lies in her having good personal hygiene, bathing on the roof. Missie Mae, of course, is not at all blameless and neither is David, but his motivation is purely lustful while hers is at least a misguided expression of love toward Joe. David’s adultery does not provide a parallel.

My next thought is for the seductress described in Proverbs. In that case, the male is seduced, but obviously in Hurston’s story, it is Missie May who is seduced by Slemmons’ smooth talk and promise of reward. Consider Proverbs 5:3-5. The gender roles are reversed, but can we truly suggest that Slemmons’ “steps lead straight to the grave”? Slemmons seems far too much the buffoon to fit the seductress of Proverbs.

Where then might we find a Biblical parallel for this story? Consider the story of Hosea. In Hosea 1:2, we find the prophet commanded to “marry an adulterous wife.” What a command. Given the playful relationship shared by Joe and Missie May at the story’s beginning, we cannot compare their relationship with Hosea and Gomer. But then we have the opinion of Joe’s mother, near the conclusion of the story. “‘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.'”

Such words hardly make Missie May an “adulterous wife, but they help to explain how she came to stray so easily. Given the example provided by her mother, Missie May did not start off with an advantage.

What is remarkable and worthy of our attention is not that either Missie May or Gomer strayed from their marital vows. What makes their stories ones to treasure is the ability of their husbands to move beyond the infidelity. Are Hosea’s children his? He cannot know for certain. Is the baby in Hurston’s story Joe’s or Slemmons’? We have the testimony of Joe’s mother that it looks like Joe, but such a testimony is hardly convincing. What matters in both cases is not the actual parentage but the attitude of the husband. In both cases, the husband claims a position as father.

In Hosea’s story, Gomer, the adulterous wife, does not remain true to her husband. She strays far more than Missie May does. The Scripture does not make us privy to the inner turmoil and pain experienced by Hosea in this matter, but it does share with us God’s command for a response in Hosea 3:1-2. For fifteen shekels and some barley, Hosea buys back his wife.

In “The Gilded Six-Bits,” we see Joe “paying” Missie May with Slemmons’ gold-covered coin after “youth triumphed” and the couple had relations for the first time after the infidelity. Joe passes along that hated coin only to have Missie May slip it into his pocket. She is not a prostitute, her action pronounces. She is his wife.

Is it significant that Joe throws fifteen silver coins into the house at the close of this story, mirroring the fifteen silver shekels Hosea used? Perhaps it is a coincidence, but it’s a splendid coincidence.

Posted in American Literature, Modernism.

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