The novel opens with the return of the main character, Janie, to her home in the all-black town of Eatonville, Florida. She walks by a porch filled with townspeople who wonder why she's returned home. One woman, Pheoby, who had been a close friend of Janie's, follows her to her house to ask what had happened. Janie greets Pheoby warmly and tells her Tea Cake, the man Janie had run off with, was dead, and that if Pheoby was interested, Janie would explain. Janie proceeds to tell Pheoby the whole story of her life.
Janie had been raised by her grandmother, who was a servant for a white family. As a child, Janie didn't realize she was "colored" until she saw herself in a photograph and literally couldn't identify herself. When she realizes she is the dark-skinned face in the picture, she's devastated. Later in her life, at about sixteen, she has a sexual awakening underneath a pear tree; she casually kisses the next boy who walks down the street. Her grandmother, Nana, sees this and is frightened; she insists that Janie marry right away.
So Nana arranges a marriage between Janie and Logan Killicks, a widower and successful farmer. Janie naively believes that marriage leads to love; after several months she returns to her grandmother and asks when she'll begin to love Logan. Her grandmother warns her to be content with what she has. But Logan is older, unattractive, and expects her to do heavy work on the farm. On the road, she meets a suave stranger who is bound for the first all-black town in Florida, and she runs off with him.
Her new husband, Joe Starks, is very bright and ambitious. Soon after their arrival in Eatonville, Joe has opened a general store and post office, built a huge home for him and Janie and been elected mayor. Initially, Janie finds all of this very exciting, but soon it appears that part of Joe's image, which is so important to him and his power in the town, is to place Janie on a pedestal. He also constantly insults her and belittles her abilities. And most importantly, he refuses to allow her to participate in the lively conversations on the porch of the store - arguments, insults, tall tales, "playing the dozens," - which are at the center of this community. The townspeople admire all that Joe has done for the town, but they dislike the way in which he treats people he sees as lower than himself.
The years pass, and soon both Joe and Janie are middle-aged. As his abilities (and the condition of his body) decline, his nastiness to Janie increases. Finally one day, she talks back to Joe in the store; she points out he is also aging and describes what he looks like with his pants down. Joe never forgives her for this, and subsequently becomes seriously ill; but still furious at Janie, he spurns all her offers of help. Soon after, he dies, leaving Janie with a huge inheritance.
Janie finally feels free and self-sufficient after Joe's death, and because of her wealth is courted by a lot of men. But she enjoys her independence and rejects all offers. But one day, when she's working alone in the store, she meets Tea Cake, a young, attractive young man who gradually seduces her. Unlike her previous relationships, Tea Cake values her mind and abilities. Janie's friends are worried he's using her for her money; but Tea Cake explicitly refuses her money. They go to Jacksonville and get married; there Janie's trust is sorely tested when Tea Cake runs out for a whole day and leaves her, but he does return. Then he proposes they both go down to the Everglades, or "the muck" for planting season, to make some money and have some fun.
Down on the muck, there is a lively community of people working together planting and harvesting. Tea Cake and Janie like it so much there they remain around during the off-season. During this time Janie spends some time with Mrs. Turner, a light-skinned black woman who has very racist attitudes towards other blacks. She and Tea Cake don't get along, and eventually he plots her ruin by staging a destructive bar fight in her restaurant.
At the beginning of the next planting season, there are warnings of a terrible hurricane, but Janie and Tea Cake ignore them. They do not realize the magnitude of the storm until it's too late and must run for their lives. There are portions of the land that are deeply covered in water, and Tea Cake exhausts himself swimming and keeping Janie afloat. Then Janie falls into the water, and is nearly attacked by a mad dog perched on top of a cow. Tea Cake jumps into the water and saves Janie, but not before he's bitten by the dog.
They survive the hurricane and everything seems to be fine for a week or two. But Tea Cake becomes very sick, and the doctor informs Janie that Tea Cake has rabies. The doctor promises to try to obtain the medicine in time to help Tea Cake. But the disease has progressed too far, and Tea Cake, not himself any longer, threatens Janie with a gun because he mistakenly believes that she's been unfaithful. To protect herself, Janie shoots and kills Tea Cake.
That very day, she's arrested, placed in jail and put on trial in front of a jury of white men. The jury rules that Tea Cake's shooting was justified, and she is allowed to go, but the black community she had been part of is suspicious and angry. They are sure Janie only got off because of the way she looked, and the situation would have been entirely different had she killed a white person.
Janie gives Tea Cake an elaborate, expensive funeral and invites all of Tea Cake's friends to try to make amends. But she feels she can no longer remain down on the muck and she returns to Eatonville. This brings the story up-to-date, to the evening when Janie is telling Pheoby her tale. Pheoby tells Janie how inspiring the story was, and then leaves to go to her own home, leaving Janie alone, thinking of Tea Cake.
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