Fatherhood as a major theme of "Gilded Six Bits"
Zora Neale Hurston’s short story, “Gilded Six Bits” explores many themes, including conflicting cultural values, the difference between reality and fantasy, the heightened importance of small change in an economic crisis, love, marriage, infidelity, jealousy and forgiveness (Chinn, and Dunn; Saunders 390). It is somewhat tempting to read the story as a parable on the enduring power of love, but that would ignore the prominent role of paternity in Joe and Missie May’s reconciliation. The narrator makes it clear that Missie May still loves Joe, but he only returns to the playful rituals that characterize their earlier interactions after hearing his mother’s emphatic statement that the baby “sho is de spittin’ image of yuh, son” (Hurston 2168). Until he can be sure that his wife is not bearing another man’s child, Joe is unable to effect a full reconciliation with Missie May or accept the child. Joe’s need to establish paternity of his wife’s child is an emotional imperative. He cannot trust that Missie May is his “real wife, not no dress and breath” until he knows that her child is his offspring (Hurston 2162).
In her essay, Paternal Confidence in Zora Neale Hurston’s “The Gilded Six Bits” Judith P. Saunders makes an excellent case for paternity’s central role in the story, albeit one that presupposes a Darwinian perspective (390). Saunders explains Joe’s doubts about the baby’s father as the fear of providing sustenance for another’s genetic line, at risk to his own “lifetime reproductive success” (390, 397). While that is a possible outcome of Missie May’s brief affair with Slemmons, unwillingness to provide for another’s child or the desire to protect his own genetic line is not Joe’s deepest concern. Neither are his actions wholly explained by the “male sexual jealousy” Saunders describes, though Joe’s fury at Slemmons shows that he experiences some of that jealousy (Saunders 398, Hurston 2165).
Joe feels hurt and betrayed by the woman he loves. He comes home one night to find the same woman who said, “Ah’m satisfied wid you jes’ lak you is, baby” in bed with another man (Hurston 2163, 2165). Missie May’s indiscretion is enough of an emotional blow in itself, sufficient to end most marriages, but the betrayal is deepened because fatherhood is very important and personal for Joe. He and Missie May have been married for a year, and he wants to make “little feet for shoes” (2165). He is somewhat obsessed with this desire and has been daydreaming about “a little boy child” on his way home from work (2165). Joe’s paternal musings are shattered by his discovery of Slemmons in the bedroom with Missie May, and, at first, he is so shocked that all he can do is laugh (2165). Soon enough he recovers and violently ejects Slemmons from the house, but he never turns his fury on Missie May (2166). If the evolutionary directive to protect his genetic line were Joe’s main motivation, it seems likely that he would leave Missie May, as she expects him to do, and seek a more loyal spouse (2166). Instead, Joe stays with Missie May, though he becomes emotionally and sexually distant.
Love and trust, and yes, fatherhood
Now we come back to the question of love and the issue of trust. When a distraught Missie May says, “…Ah love you so hard and I know you don’t love me no mo’” Joe replies, “You don’t know de feelings of that yet, Missie May” (2166). This answer is somewhat ambiguous, but Joe’s actions in the next few months make it clear that he still cares about his wife, though he is too hurt to allow the emotional closeness they previously enjoyed.
Missie May’s contrition contributes to saving their marriage, but it is not enough to fully restore their union. That requires Joe to trust her as he once did, which he finds himself unable to do. His inability or unwillingness to forgive Missie May is symbolized by his retaining the interloper’s gilded coin (Chinn, and Dunn). After three months--enough time for at least Missie May to know if she is pregnant--the couple resume sexual relations, which Missie May hopes signals the end of their estrangement (2167). It doesn’t, and for the next several weeks or months, the couple has “the outside show” of marriage, without the “substance” (2167). Joe seems to be waiting for something, whether consciously or unconsciously, and until he sees it, he still can’t let go of his hurt and mistrust enough to forgive Missie May.
What, exactly, Joe is waiting for remains a mystery, as does the question of whether he and Missie May would ever be reconciled, if not for her pregnancy. At Missie Mae’s assertion that the child she carries will be a boy who looks just like Joe, he responds, “You reckon, Missie May?” voicing for the first time his concern that Missie May’s fling might have wider consequences (2168). Previously, he counseled Missie May, “Don’t look back lak Lot’s wife and turn to salt,” but he has been unable to move on himself. His paternal aspirations reassert themselves when he notices she is pregnant, but he cannot embrace the joy of fatherhood without some proof that the child is his, that it is not the product of Missie May’s affair with Slemmons. Given the timing of events, Missie May might be completely sure that the child is Joe’s, but he clearly is not.
"The Gilded Six Bits" (60 Second Clip)
Reconciliation, and the joy of new life
As Saunders posits, the fear of expending resources on offspring not biologically related to him is probably at least a subconscious factor for Joe (393). But, the emotional implications of such a child are much more real to him than biological imperatives or material concerns. If Missie May’s child does not resemble Joe, the sight of him would serve as a constant reminder of her betrayal. Joe would always wonder whether the boy is his, or whether he has been cheated out of his dream of fatherhood. In order for him to forgive Missie May and renew their emotional bond, he must be able to trust her future loyalty (Saunders 404). A living reminder of her indiscretion would hamper the building of that trust, and stop both Joe and Missie May from moving on. Joe would be unable to forgive the double betrayal of adultery, and giving another man what he desperately wants--a son.
Despite his doubts about the paternity of her child, Joe does his best to take care of Missie May. He stops her chopping wood during her pregnancy, and he gets his mother to help with her labor when the time comes (Hurston 2168). His role as breadwinner prevents him from staying with her during the delivery, but his first question on returning home after her labor is, “How did Missie May make out?” (2168). He does not ask about the baby, likely because he is afraid of what he might hear. Conveniently, perhaps, Joe’s mother volunteers, “Dat’s yourn all right, if you never get another one, dat un is yourn” (2168, Saunders 403). This assertion from his mother, who apparently has her own suspicions about Missie May, serves to allay Joe’s concerns about the baby’s paternity (Saunders 403). He will not be faced with a painful reminder of his wife’s adultery. By giving birth to a “lil baby chile” who looks just like Joe, Missie May has, in a way, atoned for her sin (Hurston 2168).
Joe’s change in attitude toward Missie May becomes apparent when he goes to Orlando on Saturday, something he has not done in a long time (Hurston 2168). In addition to buying “All the staples” he acquires treats--apples and bananas--and most significant, candy kisses (2168-2169). Early in the story, Hurston establishes a connection between Missie May’s sexuality and the candy kisses with a reference to “Her stiff young breasts…like broad-based cones with the tips lacquered in black” and the Saturday ritual of rifling through Joe’s pockets for molasses candy kisses (Hurston 2161, 2162, Chinn and Dunn). Since he caught her with Slemmons, Joe has not brought Missie May the candy or behaved in a playful manner toward her (2167). His purchase of the candy--using Slemmons’ gilded coin--and subsequent renewal of their money-throwing game signifies his forgiveness and acceptance of Missie May (Hurston 2169, Saunders 404).
In literature, the birth of a child often signifies new life. In “The Gilded Six Bits” the birth of Joe and Missie May’s child brings renewal, halting and reversing the slow death their marriage suffers because of sin. The birth of his son and confirmation that the child is his, allow Joe to let go of his hurt and mistrust and return to the playful intimacy of early marriage (Saunders 404). Since Missie May’s affair is a betrayal of both their marriage vows and—potentially—Joe’s paternal ambitions, the birth of his son allows him to heal emotionally as nothing else could. Fulfillment of Joe’s desire to become a father signals a new beginning for he and Missie May. The fact that it is Joe’s baby proves that the damage done by Missie May’s adultery is only temporary; there will be no permanent reminders. Both of them can finally put the past behind them and look to the future with joy, and trust.
Chinn, Nancy and Dunn, Elizabeth E. "'The Ring of Singing Metal on Wood': Zora Neale Hurston's Artistry in 'The Gilded Six-Bits'". Mississippi Quarterly: The Journal of Southern Cultures: 49.4 (1996 Fall), pp. 775-90.
Hurston, Zora Neale. “The Gilded Six-Bits”. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Shorter 7th Edition. Ed. Baym, Nina. New York, London: W.W. Norton and Company, 2008. 2161-2169. Print.
Saunders, Judith P. "Paternal Confidence in Zora Neale Hurston's The Gilded Six- Bits". pp. 390, 392, 393, 397, 398, 403, 404. Boyd, Brian (ed. and I ntrod.); Carroll, Joseph (ed. and introd.) and Gottschall, Jonathan (ed. and introd.) Evolution, Literature, and Film: A Reader. New York, NY: Columbia UP, 2010.