Janie Crawford, the protagonist of the novel, returns home after being away for a very long time. The townsfolk, particularly the women, are unfriendly towards her. They gossip about Janie and how Tea Cake was too young for her. Janie's best friend, Pheoby, is angry at the women and leaves their company to take some supper to Janie. Janie tells Pheoby that she is wealthy, with nine hundred dollars in the bank. Tea Cake was a wonderful husband who never took a cent of her money. He recently died, and that is the only reason that she is back from the Everglades. Janie tells Pheoby the story of her life to so that Pheoby can explain her actions to the nosy community on her behalf.
She never met her mother or her father, and is raised by her grandmother. Her grandmother works as a nanny for white children in the Washburn family, and Janie grows up playing with the Washburn children.
Janie loves to spend the afternoons lying under a pear tree, staring into the branches. One afternoon, she is mesmerized by the beauty of bees pollinating the pear blossoms. Intoxicated by her new sexuality, she kisses Johnny Taylor. Nanny sees the kiss and proclaims that Janie is a woman now. She slaps Janie for her indiscretion, and tells her that she must get married.
Janie marries Logan Killicks and moves in to his ugly house. Three months pass and she still feels no love for Logan, so she goes to visit Nanny. Janie starts crying and Nanny sternly tells her not to worry because Janie's mind will change as time passes. Later that evening, Nanny prays to God saying that she feels sorry for Janie's unhappiness but that she did the best she could. Heavy-hearted, Nanny dies a month later.
Long before the first year of their marriage is complete, Logan's stops being sweet to Janie. One afternoon, Janie meets Joe Starks, a citified, stylishly-dressed man. Joe tells Janie that he wants to buy land in Eatonville, a new town that is run entirely by black people. Joe asks Janie to leave Logan and marry him. One afternoon, when Janie and Logan are fighting, Logan threatens to kill Janie with an axe. Janie runs out of the gate, gets in a carriage with Joe Starks. They run away and get married before sundown.
When Janie and Joe arrive in Eatonville, both are disappointed with the town. Joe buys land to increase the size of it. He calls a meeting on his porch to discuss his desire to build a post office and a general store. Very quickly, Joe earns back all the money he invested in building the store by selling land to people who want to move to the town. Joe becomes hugely influential in the town and is elected mayor. As time passes, Janie tells Joe that his interest in the new town is putting a strain on their relationship. But Joe states that he has always wanted a big voice and finally, as town mayor, he has it.
Janie and Joe's relationship continues to deteriorate. One day, he slaps her face for preparing a bad meal. Eleven years pass. Janie learns to stop fighting and rarely contradicts her husband. Joe constantly criticizes Janie for being old and ugly. He hopes that by pointing out her flaws, he can distract others from noticing his own advancing age.
One afternoon, Joe begins to insult Janie after she makes a small mistake. For the first time, Janie retaliates in front of a store full of people. She tells Joe that he is nothing but a loud voice; she tells everyone in the store that when he pulls his pants down, there is nothing there. Joe is irrecoverably crushed. His health deteriorates quickly. He becomes very ill and takes to a sick bed permanently, but refuses to allow Janie to enter his room.
Janie wants to talk to Joe before it is "too late." Janie tells Joe that "not listening" has been the main problem in his life. He has been too busy listening to himself to listen to her. She tells Joe that she did not leave Logan and "come down the road" with him to lead a life of "bowing down" and obedience. Joe breathes his last painful breath and dies of kidney failure.
Janie mourns on the outside, but on the inside, she rejoices. She is finally free of the heavily restricted life that Joe had forced her into.
One evening, a man named Tea Cake walks into the store. He and Janie play chess, flirt and chat all day while the rest of the town is at a ball game. He helps her close the store at the end of the evening, and Janie appreciates his help. About a week after their first meeting, Tea Cake comes to the store and pretends to play an invisible guitar. He suggests that they go fishing in the middle of the night. They catch a few fish and have to smuggle Tea Cake out of the back gate of Janie's house so that the people in town won't gossip.
Their relationship progresses slowly and playfully. The town criticizes Janie: how can she stop mourning the death of her dead husband so soon? Why is she with a man that has no money and no power? Pheoby asks Janie why she allows Tea Cake to take her to places she used to never go to: baseball games, fishing ponds, forests for hunting. Janie explains that she never wanted to be restricted from doing activities that Joe had considered lower-class, but that Joe had forced her to. Furthermore, Janie confides to Pheoby that she intends to marry Tea Cake, sell the store, and move out of town. She says, "Dis ain't no business proposition, and no race after property and titles. Dis is uh love game. Ah done lived Grandma's way, now Ah means tuh live mine."
One morning, Janie takes a train to away from home and marries Tea Cake in her blue satin wedding dress. She packs herself two hundred of the dollars that her husband left her, but does not tell Tea Cake about the money. Janie is so happy, "that she scares herself." One week after they are married, Tea Cake leaves before Janie wakes up and steals the money. Immediately, Janie thinks of of poor Ms. Annie Tyler, a rich widow whose money was stolen by a younger man who pretended to love her. Tea Cake reappears the next morning, telling Janie that he spent all her money entertaining his friends. He promises to win it back gambling. He does win it back one week later, but is almost killed by the angry men who lose their money to him and want it back. Tea Cake promises Janie that from that moment on they will live only using his money.
Tea Cake says that when he recovers from the cuts he wants to head to the Muck down in the Everglades because "folks don't do nothin' down dere but make money and fun and foolishness."
Once the season begins, Tea Cake spends his day picking beans while Janie tends the house. At night the men have have discussions and arguments, just as they did on the porch in Eatonville. But here, Janie can "listen and laugh and even talk some herself if she wants to. She [gets] so she can tell big stories herself from listening to the rest."
When Janie finds Tea Cake flirting with a young girl named Nunkie, she slaps him. Janie asks if Tea Cake loves Nunkie. Tea Cake says he never did love Nunkie and that no woman could compare to Janie. He says that his wife is "something tuh make uh man forgit tuh git old and forgit tuh die."
In the autumn, Janie becomes acquainted with Mrs. Turner. Mrs. Turner is a mixed-race woman who hates her own blackness. She is intent on re-marrying Janie to her white-looking brother. Tea Cake tells Janie that if Mrs. Turner hates black people so much, she should stay away from him and Janie.
The following season, many people return to live on the Muck; some of the people are familiar from last year and some are brand new. Mrs. Turner brings her brother to town to introduce him to Janie. Tea Cake slaps Janie to show Mrs. Turner's brother that Tea Cake had full control over Janie. They make up the next morning, to the whole town's envy. Tea Cake and his friends stage a bar brawl, destroying the Turners' restaurant.
One afternoon, Janie sees Seminole Indians passing through the Muck heading east. They warn of a hurricane coming, but no one believes them. That night, the weather gets extremely bad. The lights go out. Janie, Tea Cake, and some friends huddle in their basement. "They seemed to be staring at the dark, but there eyes were watching God."
After the storm, Tea Cake and Janie decide to leave the ruined area on foot. As they escape, the dam on the lake breaks and water rushes up fast behind them. Janie falls into the water and starts to drown, but Tea Cake helps her swim. As the two walk to safety, a rabid dog tries to attack Janie, and while Tea Cake protects her, it bites him on the face. Janie tells Tea Cake that they should find a doctor for his dog bite, but Tea Cake says that he is fine.
Tea Cake becomes ill and Janie grows worried and calls Doctor Simmons. She tells him that Tea Cake was bitten by a dog one month ago in the storm. Doctor Simmons tells her that Tea Cake has rabies and will probably die. He advises Janie not to sleep with Tea Cake because he may bite her and give her rabies.
Tea Cake becomes extremely moody, he is unable to drink water, and he starts behaving like a wild dog. He falls into a jealous rage when he finds out that Mrs. Turner's husband is back in the Everglades. He confronts Janie, shooting her with a pistol while Janie shoots with a rifle. The rifle fires slightly faster, and Tea Cake falls to the ground dead, biting Janie's forearm. Janie is put in jail and tried in court. Simmons explains her case to the jury and she is acquitted of murder.
Janie arranges a beautiful funeral for Tea Cake in Palm Beach and then moves back to Eatonville. The narration returns to the porch with Pheoby where it began in the first chapter. Janie says she has been to the horizon and back; she knows now that, "you got tuh go there tuh know there...Two things everybody got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin' fuh theyselves." Janie then tells Pheoby to explain her story to the townspeople; perhaps they will learn a little about love from her experiences.
Janie climbs the stairs to her bedroom with her nightlamp. Tea Cake is not dead; while Janie is living, he will live on in her memory. Janie finally finds peace; she pulls in the horizon like a great net and drapes it over her shoulders. "So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see."