As the sun sets in a southern town, a mysterious woman trudges down the main road. The local residents, gathered on Pheoby Watson's porch, know her, and they note her muddy overalls with satisfaction. Clearly resentful, they talk about how she had previously left the town with a younger man and gleefully speculate that he took her money and left her for a younger woman.Her name, it is revealed, is Janie Starks, and the fellow with whom she ran off is named Tea Cake. Pheoby criticizes the other women on the porch for their malicious gossip and sticks up for Janie. She excuses herself and visits Janie's home, bringing Janie a plate of food. Janie explains that she has returned alone because Tea Cake is gone. She has returned from living with Tea Cake in the Everglades, she explains, because she can no longer be happy there. Pheoby doesn't understand what she means, so Janie begins to tell her story.
Janie is raised by her grandmother, Nanny. She never meets her mother or her father. Janie and Nanny inhabit a house in the backyard of a white couple, Mr. and Mrs. Washburn. She plays with the Washburns' children and thinks that she herself is white until she sees a photograph of herself. The children at the black school mock Janie for living in a white couple's backyard and tease her about her derelict parents. They often remind her that Mr. Washburn's dogs hunted her father down after he got her mother pregnant, though they neglect to mention that he actually wanted to marry her. Nanny eventually buys some land and a house because she thinks that having their own place will be better for Janie. When Janie is sixteen, she often sits under a blossoming pear tree, deeply moved by the images of fertile springtime. One day, caught up in the atmosphere of her budding sexuality, she kisses a local boy named Johnny Taylor. Nanny catches Janie with Johnny and decides to marry Janie off to Logan Killicks, a wealthy middle-aged farmer. Nanny was born into slavery. She was raped by her master and, a week after her daughter Leafy was born, her master went to fight during the last days of the Civil War. The master's wife was furious to see that Leafy had gray eyes and light hair and thus was obviously her husband's daughter. She planned to have Nanny viciously whipped and to sell Leafy once she was a month old. Nanny escaped with her baby and the two hid in the swamps until the war was over.Her dreams of a better life for Leafy ended when Leafy was raped by her schoolteacher. After giving birth to Janie, Leafy went out drinking every night and eventually ran off. Nanny transferred her hopes to Janie.
As Janie prepares for her marriage to Logan, she understands that she doesn't love him but assumes that after marriage, love will come naturally, as Nanny has been telling her. The wedding is a big, festive affair, but two months later, Janie visits Nanny to ask for advice; she fears that she will never love Logan. Nanny berates Janie for not appreciating Logan's wealth and status. She sends Janie on her way, again telling her that, in time, she will develop feelings for Logan. After Janie leaves, Nanny prays to God to care for Janie, saying that she, Nanny, has done the best that she could. A month later, she dies. A year passes, and Janie still feels no love for Logan.
Logan pampers Janie less and tries to get her to perform manual labor, claiming that she is spoiled. One day, he leaves to buy a second mule so that Janie can help him work in the fields. While Logan is getting the mule, Janie spies a good-looking, sharply dressed stranger ambling down the road. She catches his eye and flirts a while with him; his name is Joe Starks, a smooth-tongued, stylish man with grand ambitions. He tells her that he is from Georgia, that he has saved up a lot of money, and that he has come down to Florida to move to a new town that is being built and run by blacks. He lingers around the town for a while and every day he and Janie meet secretly. He dazzles her with his big dreams, and Janie's hopes for love come alive again. He asks her to call him "Jody," a nickname that she has created for him. Finally, after about two weeks of clandestine flirtation, he says that he wants her to leave Logan and marry him. That night, Janie and Logan fight. He again calls her spoiled and she mentions the possibility of running off. Feeling threatened, Logan responds desperately by insulting and belittling Janie. The next morning, they argue more. Logan orders her to help with the farm work; Janie says that he expects her to worship him but that she never will. Logan then breaks down, cursing her and sobbing. Afterward, Janie leaves to meet Jody at an agreed-upon time and place. They marry at the first opportunity and set out for the new town.
Jody and Janie arrive in the Florida town to find that it consists of little more than a dozen shacks. Jody introduces himself to two men, Lee Coker and Amos Hicks, and asks to see the mayor; the men reply that there is none. Jody moves over to a porch to chat with a group of the townspeople, who tell him that the town's name is Eatonville. After hearing that Eatonville contains only fifty acres, Jody makes a big show of paying cash for an additional two hundred acres from Captain Eaton, one of the donors of Eatonville's existing land. After buying the land, Jody announces his plans to build a store and a post office and calls a town meeting. A man named Tony Taylor is technically chairman of the assembly, but Jody does all the talking. At his store, Jody is quickly named mayor, and for the occasion Taylor asks Janie to give a short speech. Jody prevents her from doing so, saying that wives shouldn't make speeches. His opinion angers Janie, but she remains silent. After becoming mayor, Jody decides that the town needs a street lamp. He buys the lamp with his own money and then calls a town meeting to vote on whether or not the town should install it. Though some dissent, a majority vote approves the motion. After the lamp arrives, Jody puts it on display for a week, and it becomes a source of pride for the whole town. He organizes a big gathering for the lighting, complete with guests from surrounding areas and a feast. The party is a huge success, full of ceremony and dignity. Afterward, Janie hints that she wants to spend more time with Jody now that he has done so much work. He replies that he is just getting started. After a while, Jody and the rest of the town start to grow apart from each other, and Janie, as the mayor's wife, becomes the object of both respect and jealousy. Jody's wealth make the people of Eatonsville envious, however nobody dares challenge him/
Janie dislikes the business of running the store but loves that people sit on its porch and talk all day telling colorful, exaggerated stories. The men love teasing a man named Matt Bonner about his overworked, underfed, bad-tempered mule. Despite the fact that Janie likes these stories, Jody does not let her sit around the porch, telling her that she is too good for these "trashy people". Jody does not let Janie wear her hair down because he does not want people staring at her long hair. One day, Matt Bonner's mule runs away, and some of the townsmen find it outside the store. They irritate the mule for fun, and Janie mutters her disapproval of their cruelty. Unbeknownst to her, Jody is standing nearby and hears her complaint. He buys the mule for five dollars so that the poor beast can rest for once in his life. Everyone considers Jody's liberation of the mule very noble, comparing it to Abraham Lincoln's emancipation of northern slaves. The animal becomes a source of pride for the town and the subject of even more tall tales. After it dies, Jody convenes a mock funeral, which becomes a festive event for the entire town. But Jody refuses to allow Janie to attend, saying it would be improper for a woman of her status.At the store, Jody and Janie argue. She accuses him of being no fun and he argues that he is just being responsible. Although she disagrees, she decides to hold her tongue. On the porch, meanwhile, Sam Watson (Pheoby's husband) and Lige Moss hold a humorous philosophical debate. They argue about whether natural instinct or a learned sense of caution keeps men away from hot stoves. The good-spirited argument gets intense and Jody decides to join it, leaving his delivery boy Hezekiah Potts in charge of the store. Janie is enjoying the fun when Jody orders her back in the store to wait on one of the women.When Janie cannot find any pig's feet for another customer, Jody grows angry and accuses her of incompetence. Instead of fighting back, Janie remains silent. But as time goes on, her resentment builds. She feels the spark go out of their sex life and the spirit of love leave their marriage. One day, seven years after they met, Jody slaps her after a disastrous dinner.But later that day, Janie goes to the store. There, she finds Tony Robbins's wife begging Jody for a little meat for her family. Jody gives her a small piece and adds the cost to Tony's account. The men on the porch mutter that they would never allow their wives to embarrass them like that, especially since her husband had spent so much money on her. Janie finally cannot resist speaking up, scolding the men and saying that they don't know as much about women as they think they do. She points out that it is easy to act big and tough when women and chickens are the only things around to subdue. Jody tells her to be quiet and orders her to fetch him a checkerboard.
As the years pass, Janie grows more and more defeated. She considers running away but doubts that she can find refuge anywhere, feeling that she has grown unattractive. She feels her spirit detach from her body; she watches herself work at the store and submit to Jody while her mind is really elsewhere. One day, Janie notices that Jody has begun to look quite old. He has trouble moving around and his body bulges and sags. Jody, too, seems aware of this physical change, and he pesters Janie about her age and appearance, attempting to get her to worry about her own appearance and ignore his. But Janie sees through his ploy. She realizes how ugly and old he feels.Jody keeps deteriorating and, as a result, his verbal attacks become more vicious and frequent. One day, Janie makes a clumsy mistake while cutting a plug of tobacco for a customer. Jody begins berating her in front of the store crowd, not only mocking her incompetence but also insulting her looks. Janie finally releases her pent-up aggression. She insults his sagging body and declares that he looks like "de change uh life" when naked. The force of the insult stuns the men on the porch. Jody feels impotent, his reputation in the town diminished and his power vanishing. He lashes out in a blind rage, fiercely hitting Janie and driving her from the store.
After the confrontation, Jody moves into another room in the house. His health keeps deteriorating and he grows desperate, consulting with quacks who promise miracle cures.
anie learns from Pheoby that there is a rumor around town that Janie is trying to poison Jody for revenge. Nevertheless, Janie sends for a real doctor from Orlando. The doctor examines Jody and determines that his kidneys have stopped working and that he will soon die. Janie begins to pity Jody and wants to see him one last time. Jody refuses, but Janie decides that it will soon be too late, so she enters his room. He is cold and distant, and their conversation quickly deteriorates into an argument. He says that she never appreciated all that he did for her; she responds that he never let her express her emotions. She then tells him that he is dying and Jody finally realizes the truth. He breaks down, releases one long, anguished sob, and begs Janie not to tell him such things. He dies, and she thinks about all the time that has passed since she met him. She looks in a mirror and sees that she has aged but is still beautiful. She rips off her head-rag, freeing her imprisoned hair, but then realizes that she must appear to be mourning. She ties it back up, assumes a mask of sadness, and yells out the window that Jody has died.
After Jody's elaborate funeral, Janie begins her period of mourning. On the inside she feels released and joyous, but she maintains a sad face for the outside world. The only noticeable change is that she begins wearing her hair in a long braid again, having burned all of her head rags. Now that she is alone, she begins to examine her feelings and realizes that she hates Nanny for the values with which Nanny raised her. Nanny taught her to seek superficial prizes such as wealth, security, and status instead of chasing her dreams. Soon, men begin approaching Janie; as an attractive and wealthy woman, she would make quite a prize. Despite these constant advances, Janie's six months of mourning pass without any suitor making progress. Janie's newfound freedom and independence make her happy, and she has no desire to become tied down to another man. Her only source of unhappiness is the store, which she continues to run. As per custom, Janie begins wearing white after six months, supposedly signaling her availability for suitors. But she continues to rebuff all advances and confides in Pheoby that she loves her new independence. Pheoby responds that the townspeople will think that she isn't sad that Jody is dead. Janie replies that she doesn't care what the town thinks because she shouldn't pretend to be sad if she isn't.
One day, Hezekiah leaves the store early to go to a baseball game. Janie decides to close up early, since most of the town is at the game. But before she can do so, a tall stranger enters the store. He buys cigarettes from her and then begins making flirtatious small talk, making her laugh with his jokes. He invites her to play checkers, which thrills her; no man has ever respected her enough to ask her to play checkers. She notices his good looks and shapely body. Afterward, they chat some more and Janie asks him how he plans to get home. He answers that he always finds a way home, even if that requires sneaking onto a train illegally. She finally asks his name, and he replies that it is Vergible Woods but that everyone calls him Tea Cake. He helps her lock up the store, walks her to her porch, and says good night.
Tea Cake doesn't come back for a week, and Janie, thinking that he is taking advantage of her wealth, decides to be rude to him when he shows up. But when he finally comes by, his fanciful joking—he pretends to play an imaginary guitar—immediately makes Janie smile. They flirt and play checkers again, and then Tea Cake walks Janie home. They sit on her porch and talk for hours, eating cake and drinking fresh lemonade. As late as it is, Tea Cake proposes that they go fishing. They stay out the rest of the night at the lake, and in the morning, Janie has to sneak Tea Cake out of town to avoid gossip. The next day, Hezekiah tells Janie that Tea Cake is too low for a woman like her; Janie, however, doesn't care. Tea Cake returns that night and they eat a dinner of fresh fish. Afterward, Janie falls asleep in Tea Cake's lap and wakes up to find him brushing her hair. They talk for a while, and Tea Cake says that he fears that Janie thinks that he is a scoundrel. Janie tells him that she likes him, but as a good friend, not as a lover. Crushed, Tea Cake says that he feels more strongly about her than she apparently does about him. Janie doesn't believe him, thinking that he can't possibly be attracted to someone so much older than him. She tells him that he will feel different in the morning. Tea Cake leaves abruptly.
The next day, Janie anxiously frets about Tea Cake, who doesn't return. The day after that, however, he wakes her up by knocking on her door. He says that he has to leave for work but that he wanted to let her know that his feelings for her are real. That night, Janie finds Tea Cake waiting for her in her hammock. They eat dinner and he spends the night. The next morning, he leaves. Janie is again filled with desperate fears that Tea Cake has simply taken advantage of her. But he returns after three days, driving a beat-up car, and says that he wants to make their relationship public; he bought the car because he wants to take her to the big town picnic.
After the picnic, Tea Cake and Janie become the topic of scandalous gossip. The town doesn't approve of the revered mayor's widow dating a poor, younger man. Sam Watson convinces Pheoby to talk to Janie so that she doesn't end up like Ms. Tyler, an old widow who was cheated by a younger man. Pheoby tells Janie that Tea Cake is too low for her, but Janie replies that while Jody wanted her to act pretentious and high-class, Tea Cake treats her as she wants to be treated. Pheoby warns that Tea Cake may be using her for her money and tells Janie that she has stopped mourning for Jody too soon. Janie dismisses these admonitions, saying she shouldn't mourn if she is not sad. Janie then reveals that she plans to sell the store, leave town, and marry Tea Cake. She explains that she doesn't want the town to compare Tea Cake to Jody. She also says that she has lived her grandmother's way and now wants to live her own way. She adds that augmented status seemed like the ultimate achievement to a former slave like Nanny but that she, Janie, is searching for something deeper. Pheoby cautions her once more to be careful with Tea Cake, but then the two women laugh and share in Janie's newfound happiness.
Janie leaves Eatonville and meets Tea Cake in Jacksonville, where they marry. Still wary of being ripped off, Janie doesn't tell Tea Cake about the two hundred dollars that she has pinned inside her shirt. A week later, Tea Cake leaves early, saying that he is just running to get fish for breakfast. He doesn't come back, and Janie discovers that her money is missing. She spends the day thinking about Ms. Tyler, the widow in Eatonville who had been ripped off by a charming rascal named Who Flung. But Tea Cake returns later that night to a still-distraught Janie. He explains that a wave of excitement came over him when he saw the money; he spent it all on a big chicken and macaroni dinner for his fellow railroad workers. It turned into a raucous party, full of music and fighting. Janie is insulted that Tea Cake didn't invite her, but Tea Cake further explains that he was worried that Janie might think that his crowd was too low class. Janie says that from now on, she wants to enjoy everything that he does. Tea Cake then promises to reimburse Janie. He claims to be a great gambler and goes off Saturday night to play dice and cards. Again, he disappears for a while and Janie frets. Around daybreak he returns. He got hurt the previous night, cut with a razor by an angry loser, but he won three hundred and twenty-two dollars. Janie, who now trusts Tea Cake, tells him about the twelve hundred dollars that she has in the bank. Tea Cake announces that she will never have to touch it, that he will provide for her, and that they will leave for "the muck" (the Everglades), where he will get work.
Janie, completely in love with Tea Cake, is overwhelmed by the rich, fertile fields of the Everglades. Tea Cake is familiar with life in the muck and immediately gets them settled before the season's rush of migrant workers arrives. He plans to pick beans during the day and play guitar and roll dice at night. As the season begins, Tea Cake and Janie live a comfortable life. They plant beans, Tea Cake teaches Janie how to shoot a gun, and they go hunting together. She eventually develops into a better shot than he. The season soon gets underway. Poor transients pour into the muck in droves to farm the land; eventually, all the houses are taken and people camp out in the fields. At night, the Everglades are filled with wild energy as the cheap bars pulse with music and revelry. Tea Cake's house becomes a center of the community, a place where people hang out and listen to him play music. At first, Janie stays at home and cooks glorious meals, but soon Tea Cake gets lonely and begins cutting work to see her. Janie then decides to join him in the fields so that they can be together all day. Working in her overalls and sitting on the cabin stoop with the migrant workers, Janie laughs to herself about what the people in Eatonville would say if they could see her. She feels bad for the status-obsessed townspeople who cannot appreciate the folksy pleasure of sitting and jawing on the porch.
After a while in the muck, Janie begins to grow jealous of Nunkie, a chunky girl who flirts with Tea Cake in the fields. As the season goes on, Nunkie grows bolder and bolder and is always falling over Tea Cake and playfully touching him. One day, Janie gets distracted and then finds that Nunkie and Tea Cake have disappeared. Their friend Sop-de-Bottom tells Janie that Nunkie and Tea Cake are over in a patch of cane. Janie rushes over and finds them play-wrestling on the ground. Tea Cake explains that Nunkie stole his work tickets and coquettishly made him tussle for them. Nunkie flees, and when the couple returns home, Janie tries to beat Tea Cake. But he holds her off, and her wild anger transforms into wild passion. In bed the next morning, they both joke about what a foolish girl Nunkie is.
The season ends, and Janie and Tea Cake decide to stay around for another year. During the off-season, there isn't much to do, so Janie spends more time socializing. She hangs out a little with the exotic Bahamians who live in the muck but spends most of her time with Mrs. Turner. Although she is black, Mrs. Turner, a funny-looking, conceited woman, talks all the time about the evils of black people. She loves whiteness and argues that black people are lazy and foolish and that they should try to "lighten up de race." She dislikes the dark-skinned Tea Cake and wants Janie to marry her light-skinned brother. Tea Cake overhears a conversation between Janie and Mrs. Turner and tells Janie that he doesn't want Mrs. Turner around the house. He plans to visit Mr. Turner to tell him to keep his wife away, but when he meets the man on the street, Tea Cake finds that he is a depressed, passive man dominated by his wife and drained by the deaths of several of his children. He gets Janie to try to end her friendship with Mrs. Turner. Janie acts coldly toward Mrs. Turner, but the woman keeps visiting nonetheless. Mrs. Turner worships whiteness, and Janie, by virtue of her light skin and high-class demeanor, represents an ideal for her. She disapproves of Janie's marriage to Tea Cake, but her opinions matter little to them. The summer soon ends, and the busy season begins again.
As the season begins, some familiar faces return and some new faces appear. Mrs. Turner brings her brother to town, and Tea Cake, feeling threatened, beats Janie to show that he still controls her. He pampers her afterward, and Janie harbors no ill will toward him. All the men are envious of his power over her. On Saturdays, workers receive their pay, and many use their money to buy liquor. One particular Saturday, two men named Dick Sterrett and Coode may get drunk and walk around the town making a ruckus. They end up at Mrs. Turner's restaurant, where Tea Cake and his crowd are eating. They get rowdy and a fight breaks out. Tea Cake tries to throw the two out and get on Mrs. Turner's good side, but his efforts only lead to further havoc. The restaurant gets trashed, and Mrs. Turner gets trampled and injured. She fumes at her husband for passively letting the roustabouts wreck her business.
One day, Janie sees several groups of Native Americans departing the Everglades for Palm Beach. She asks them why they are leaving and they respond that a hurricane is coming. The news spreads through the settlement and everyone begins watching anxiously. Over the next few days, more indigenous people leave and animals begin scurrying off in the same direction. Soon, workers begin leaving the town. Although he is offered a ride to higher ground, Tea Cake decides to stay. Several men who decide to stay gather at Tea Cake's house, and a party ensues. But as the storm whips up, all of the men leave for their own houses except a fellow named Motor Boat. That night and the next day, the storm builds in the distance and the gigantic Lake Okechobee begins to roil. The three of them wait out the storm in the shanty with "their eyes . . . watching God." Tea Cake says that he bets Janie wishes that she had stayed in her big house in Eatonville, but she replies that she doesn't care what happens as long as they remain together. He goes outside and sees that a serious flood has begun. They decide to flee. They gather up some essential papers and, arms locked against the wind, Tea Cake, Janie, and Motor Boat head east to higher ground. The three look behind them and see that the Okechobee's dikes have burst and that the lake is pouring toward them, crushing everything in its path. They hurry and reach an abandoned, tall house on a little hill, where they decide to rest. After a short sleep, Janie wakes up and sees the lake moving closer. She and Tea Cake flee, but Motor Boat decides to stay in the house. Exhausted, the couple trudge onward, and the flooding gets so bad that they have to swim great distances. They pass bodies and horrible destruction along the way. Trying to grab a piece of roofing for cover, Janie gets blown into rough water. She struggles but then sees a cow swimming by with a growling dog perched on its back. She grabs the cow's tail for safety, but the dog begins to attack her. Tea Cake dives to the rescue and wrestles in the water with the beast, who bites him on the cheek before he stabs it to death. The next day, Janie and Tea Cake reach Palm Beach, a scene of chaotic destruction. They find a place to rest and Janie thanks Tea Cake for saving her life.
After the hurricane, death is all around Palm Beach. Two white men with rifles force Tea Cake to bury corpses. Disgusted with the work and fearful of the racism around the town (the white corpses get coffins, but the black corpses are simply dumped in a ditch and covered with quicklime), Tea Cake and Janie decide to leave surreptitiously and return to the Everglades. Tea Cake and Janie learn that although some of their friends have died, many have survived, including Motor Boat, who miraculously stayed alive during the storm while sleeping in the abandoned house. Tea Cake works for a while rebuilding the dike. But about four weeks after their return, he comes home from work early with a bad headache. He says that he is hungry, but when Janie makes him food, he is unable to eat. At night he wakes up in a choking fit and the next day gags when trying to drink water. Janie gets Dr. Simmons, a friendly white man who is a fixture in the muck. He chats amiably with Tea Cake and hears his story. But afterward, he pulls Janie aside and tells her that he thinks that the dog that bit Tea Cake was rabid. He adds that it is probably too late to save Tea Cake but that he will order medicine from Palm Beach just in case. Tea Cake's health deteriorates and the rabies warp his mind, filling him with delusional, paranoid thoughts. Janie doesn't tell him about the doctor's diagnosis. When she sneaks off to see if the medicine has arrived, Tea Cake accuses her of sneaking off to see Mrs. Turner's brother, who has just returned to the Everglades. She mollifies him, telling him that she went to see the doctor, and they begin to talk lovingly. But Janie grows afraid when she feels a pistol hidden under the pillow. That night, Tea Cake is seized by more choking attacks. In the morning, Janie says that she is going to see Dr. Simmons again. Tea Cake gets angry, and when he goes outside to the outhouse, Janie checks his pistol. She finds that it is loaded with three bullets. Instead of unloading it, she sets it so that it will run through the three empty chambers before getting to a bullet, giving her time to act in case he fires at her. When Tea Cake returns, he becomes crazier, accusing Janie of treating him wrongly. Janie sees that he is holding the pistol. He pulls the trigger once, and it clicks on the empty chamber. Janie grabs the rifle and hopes to scare him off. But he pulls the trigger twice more, and as he is about to fire again, Janie has no choice but to shoot him. Janie is put on trial that same day. In the courtroom, all of the black people of the muck have come to watch, and Janie can feel that they, her former friends, have all turned against her; they even offer to testify against her. Dr. Simmons takes the stand in defense of Janie, but Janie gives the most powerful testimony of all, telling the court about their story and her love for Tea Cake. The all-white, all-male jury finds her innocent. The white women watching the proceedings crowd around her in solidarity while her former friends shuffle out, defeated. After the trial, Janie gives Tea Cake a royal burial.
After Tea Cake's funeral, the men of the muck realize how poorly they treated Janie; to appease their feelings of guilt, they beat Mrs. Turner's brother and run him out of town again. Since the Everglades mean nothing to Janie without Tea Cake, she returns to Eatonville, taking only a package of seeds that she plans to plant in remembrance of Tea Cake. Her story finished, Janie tells Pheoby that she is content to live in Eatonville again, having already lived her dream; she has been to the "horizon and back." She knows that the town will gossip behind her back, but she doesn't care. She says that they don't know what love really is and that they have not truly lived for themselves. That night, in bed, Janie thinks about the horrible day that she killed Tea Cake, and her whole world becomes sad. She realizes, however, that Tea Cake gave her so much and that he will always be with her. He showed her the horizon, and now she feels at peace.