In the stories The Gilded Six-Bits by Zora Neale Hurtson and The Waltz, by Dorothy Parker, the main characters find themselves acting under the tight social constraints that society projects on them. Their gender, race and class all dictate how they see themselves and how others see them, and therefore how they must act. Missie May, Joe and the narrator of The Waltz are all puppets to convention, although not always conscious of it. Through this essay I will demonstrate the social restrictions and rules that existed for people of color and women in the early 1900s, with evidence from the text.
The Gilded Six-Bits is a moving story of frustration and greed. In the home of a poor young black couple in the southern states is where our scene takes place. As we find out, Missie May is an attractive black newly married homemaker who takes pride in her husband’s hard work and in her own work around the house. Her husband who works at a fertilizer company adores her, and puts her on a pedestal and yet expects her to stay in her role as a subservient homemaker.
As is demonstrated in the story, Missie May struggles with her social restrictions and expectations. Firstly, the color of her skin decrees of what class she is. She is of color, meaning she is lower than even the lowest white folk and also dictates what part of town she must live, at what level she must marry, and where she is to work, but most importantly, it defines how other (white) people treat her.
Not only is Missie May black, but also a woman. This puts her at a double disadvantage, since even white women were still struggling to be recognized as valued human beings at this time. White women were just achieving the vote and had just finished proving to the world that they were valuable commodities, during the First World War, when they were made to do men’s jobs to keep society going. Opinion of women at this time is very low. Women’s main role was still to marry and have children.
In The Gilded Six -Bits, the first example of role playing is during Missie and Joe’s little game. Every Saturday Joe throws silver dollars onto the floor where Missie stands, and then she must catch him and go through his pockets to find the coveted candy kisses. This is a fun routine they go through every week when Joe is paid, and both parties look forward to it. Missie May goes through the motions of the game: “Nobody ain’t gointer be chunkin’ money at me and Ah not do ’em nothin’,” she shouted in mock anger.” (p. 1439)
Hence, the first role Missie plays is as a predator in a friendly game with her husband. Although society doesn’t impose what she is supposed to do in that instance, it is her husband’s expectations that are imposed on her. Joe insists on playing this game every week, and therefore she must play her character with him every time. Although it is ‘just a game’, it is very representative of their relationship in that he requires her to take her role as he takes his.
Next, we see Missie in her predictable role, as a wife and as a woman. We hear from Joe that “Woman ain’t go no business in a man’s clothes nohow. Go away.” (p.1440) And later he puts her in her place by denouncing the fact that she is hungry: ” ‘You ain’t hongry, sugar,’ Joe contradicted her. Youse jes’ a little empty. Ah’m de one whut’s hongry.” Next, Joe gives
“Have it on the table when Ah git out de tub.” She resentfully comes back with her declaration that she is indeed an excellent wife: “Ah’m a real wife, not no dress and breath.” As you can tell, Missie accepts her role as a woman and as a wife, and also accepts her subservient role with her husband. She follows the guide lines he sets for her. An interesting observation is that the rules differ as soon as they enter the home. During their little game, Missie and Joe are equals, but as soon as they set foot in the home setting, Missie becomes servile and Joe becomes demanding.
Joe is the hard working husband, who brings home the money and supports his wife. He treats his wife well, and ‘adores’ her and yet expects her to be obsequious. “Ah’m satisfied de way ah is so long as ah be yo husband, ah don’t keer bout nothing else.” (p.1442). He is proud that she is very attractive and treats her as an object and feels he owns her. “Ah ain’t never been noewhere and Ah ain’t got nothin but you.” (p.1441) Joe also feels the need to parade Missie around to show off what he’s got: “Go ‘head on now, honey and put on yo’ clothes. He talkin’ ’bout his pritty womens – Ah want ‘im to see mine.” (p.1442)
Another instance of keeping in the role of a lady is when Joe refuses to give Missie a second helping of the tater pone: “Nope, sweetenin’ is for us men-folks. Y’all pritty lil frail eels don’t need nothin’ lak dis. You too sweet already.” (p.1440) I interpret this to mean he doesn’t want her to take more because it isn’t lady-like to have seconds and he wants her to keep her nice figure so he can show her off.
His possessive attitude changes when he catches Missie May in bed with Otis D. Slemmons. His attitude towards her changes immensely. She no longer has ‘marital duties’, but still must maintain the cleaning and cooking. This makes her more of a slave than a wife, because she is supposed to do these things as a wife, but once the intimacy is gone, what is left is the bare bones of being a wife, which is to cook and to clean for the husband.
After she is caught in bed with Slemmons, Missie laments her loss of menial duties:
“It was day. Nothing more. Joe wouldn’t be coming home as usual. No need to fling open the front door and sweep off the porch, making it nice for Joe. Never no more breakfast to cook; no more washing and starching of Joe’s jumper-jackets and pants. No more nothing, So why get-up?” (p.1444)
I find it very interesting that as soon as her husband finds out about her affair, she mourns not the loss of trust, or ‘good times’, but she mourns the work that she did for him. She laments that she can no longer serve him the way she used to. Missie May took her role as being a wife very seriously and when she thought there was no need for her ‘services’ anymore, she decided there wasn’t much to live for, which is quite shocking. Missie May was so involved in her role with her husband, that she had no other identity.
“He had both chance and time to kill the intruder in his helpless condition – half in and half out of his pants – 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 Sampson awakening after his haircut. So he just opened his mouth and laughed.” (p.1143)
This last scene describes a time when Joe does not know how to act or what to do. There is not a specific protocol for poor blacks or rich whites of what to do when one catches one’s wife cheating. He is not sure what he feels or whether to laugh or cry. He is not clear as to what his role in this situation is. Does he kill the intruder? Does he beat his wife? Joe is caught in a brutally complicated situation, where society has no specific guidelines to follow. Fortunately, Joe, being the good soul he is, hits Slemmons, and comforts his wife, not following convention in the least with those actions.
The narrator in The Waltz by Dorothy Parker takes a humorous look at women’s etiquette in society. The Waltz is about a woman who is trapped in the conventions of her high class society. She must conform to the ‘rules’ of her status. In this case, she is asked to dance by a man whom she detests and does not want to waltz with. For pages, she condemns the man with whom she dances while outwardly ‘enjoying’ herself. The narrator (whom we shall refer to as Mary) ironically points out how women are supposed to be passive and receptive to men. The rules of convention dictate that she must not only dance with him, but forgive his clumsiness and invite him to continue dancing with her, all the while, inside damning his every word and motion. “There was I, trapped. Trapped like a trap in a trap.” (p.1463)
Although Missie May and ‘Mary’ differ greatly in their social class and their race, they share a common bond of both being women in the early 1900s. Here we have Missie May, at the very bottom of the social totem pole, being a black woman, and then we have Mary, who is of the highest social ranking, and incredibly, both suffer from the constraints of society. In the next quotation, we see the two facedness of Mary; the contradiction between her thoughts and her actual speech:
“Ow! For God’s sake, don’t kick, you idiot; this is only second down.
Oh, my shin. My poor, poor shin, that I’ve had ever since I was a little girl!
‘Oh, no, no, no. Goodness, no. It didn’t hurt the least little bit. And anyway it was my fault. Really it was. Truly. Well, you’re just being sweet, to say that. It really was all my fault.’
Die he must and die he shall, for what he did to me. I don’t want to be the over-sensitive type, but you can’t tell me that kick was unpremeditated…but when it comes to kicking, I am Outraged Womanhood. When you kick me in the shin, smile.” (p.1463)
Mary apologizes profusely, and is always saving the man’s embarrassment, always cradling the man’s ego. This high-class woman is expected to stay mute about her opinions and stoop to pleasing the man. Even though she is not serving a man directly as Missie May serves Joe, Mary is in a sense serving under male society’s laws. She serves men by not outwitting them, by not broadcasting her opinions and by ‘smiling’. Mary is just as servile as Missie May in that she obeys a man based society.
The three characters discussed in this essay, from The Gilded Six-Bits and The Waltz, all deal with the challenges of their roles in society differently. Missie May accepts her role graciously, until she lashes out and has an affair, Joe gets caught in a moment when he does not know what to do, and therefore laughs, and ‘Mary’ talks to herself, but never exposes her inner thoughts. No matter the class, race or gender they all found ways to cope with the roles society had imposed on them.