The Meaning of Symbolism and Imagery in the Writings of Zora Neale Hurston

Last Updated: 20 Jun 2022
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Zora Neale Hurston uses symbolism and imagery to capture emotions and guide the reader through the story through the eyes of the characters. In her short fiction story, The Gilded Six-Bits, Hurston entertains the emotional and visual senses of the reader by using several symbols and images to give light to the story and character settings.

Hurston starts out the story by portraying a couples' relationship and giving it a sense of security, love and trust. However, as the story develops it is clear that know matter how true love is - greed can falter love.

Symbolism is shown strongly through colors in Hurston's story. White is used as a symbol of purity. It portrays the relationship between Joe and Missie May as a clean and untouched relationship as described by Hurston, "The fence and house were whitewashed. The porch and steps scrubbed white." (252) Joe thinks of the image of his white house on the way home from work right before he discovers Missie May and Slemmons together. Gold is used frequently throughout the short story as a symbol of social status and greed.

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Otis D. Slemmons is respected by Joe in the beginning of the story and depicted as being of great importance because of his gold teeth, a five-dollar gold piece for a stickpin and a ten-dollar gold piece on his watch chain. Slemmons character is later disemboweled because he is caught in the act of having sex with Joe's wife. The gold symbolizes mistrust, misfortune, greed and falsehood after Slemmons, Missie May and the gold are revealed. Silver also symbolizes a social status to all three of the main characters and a personal symbol to Joe and Missy May.

It is clear a little over half way through the story that Slemmons was in the same social class as Joe and Missie May because he did not really have any more money than they did. For Joe and Missie May silver was a symbol of there relationship. It was a ritual in their relationship for Joe to give Missie May the silver dollars every Saturday. The moon is described by Hurston as a silver image on Joe's ride home from work, "...a lean moon rode the lake in a silver boat. If anybody had asked Joe about the moon on the lake, he would have said he hadn't paid it any attention. But he saw it with his feelings. " (255) Joe saw the lake with his "feelings" and he saw the silver moon; it is clear that he associated his relationship with his wife with silver.

Numbers are also used as symbols to make a statement without actually stating it. Joe and Missie May's magic number is nine. This stands for the nine silver dollars that Joe would throw into the house every Saturday. After she and Slemmons were caught together Joe no longer threw the coins into the house on Saturdays. Slemmons is told to have two gold pieces on him in the amounts of five and ten which is the amount of coins that Joe throws into the house at the end of the story. Slemmons uses numbers in an abstract way to describe people. He associates the number forty with the word forte and Joe doesn't understand what he means by it.

Slemmons ironically opens an ice cream shop. Ice cream is a universal symbol for something that is sweet but cold. Slemmons was seen as sweet and suave as was Missie May until the two got together; then Joe viewed them as being cold.

Clothing is another social status symbol. Slemmons is described as someone who wore fine clothes. Later in the story Joe calls them rags. When Joe took Missie May to the ice cream parlor he wanted her to wear her Sunday clothes so that he could show her off to Slemmons. He wanted him to see his woman since Slemmons talks about all of the women that he has. Hurston writes that Joe considered Missie May to be the best dressed woman at church, " on Sunday nights when Missie outdressed any woman in town..." (255) This quote also brings up the symbol of religion. When Joe asked Missie May to go to the ice cream parlor for the first time Hurston writes that he tells her, "...put on yo' Sunday-go-to-meetin' things." (253) Hurston writes in other quotes that refer to images from the Bible. "Like Samson awakening after his haircut." (256) "Don't look back lak Lot's wife and turn to salt." (257) The imagery from these quotes make it know that Joe is a religious man in the story and Hurston herself has a religious background.

Laughter is used to portray and hide feelings in Joe. Laughter shows the happiness between Joe and Missie May when they have their playful game on Saturdays. Later in the story

Hurston writes that Joe's laughter is shown as an unsure feeling when he finds Slemmons with his wife, "So he just opened his mouth and laughed." and before bed that night, "...and took a good laugh and went to bed." (256) At the end of the story Joe was laughing in the store when he turned in the 4-bit piece that he pulled off of Slemmon's neck for candy. The clerk states after Joe leaves, "Wisht I could be like these darkies. Laughin' all the time. Nothin' worries 'em." This was surely not Joe's case at all but his character tells otherwise. Hurston also uses laughter as a private symbol in another one of her writings. "They made burning statements with questions, and killing tools out of laughs." (Their Eyes Were Watching God 2) "Pearl Stone opened her mouth and laughed real hard because she didn't know what else to do." (Their Eyes Were Watching God 2-3)

Hurston's real life is story is a mystery according to Ann Ducile's book review in The New York Times. She has conflicting age and birth date documents due to her habitual lying. "...although she gave the year of her birth as 1910, rather than 1891, as scholars have now determined." (The New York Times) Literature and The Writing Process has her birth date listed as 1901. Her birthplace is also not certain. She has said that she was born in Eatonville but it is assumed that she was born in Notasulga, Alaska. Nonetheless, Hurston has made a mark in the history of writing with her cultural relations and peers. According to The New York Times article there are festivals, foundations, literary societies, endowed chairs, journals, honors and awards in the name of Zora.

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The Meaning of Symbolism and Imagery in the Writings of Zora Neale Hurston. (2017, Dec 19). Retrieved from

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