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Janie returns to Eatonville one evening in overalls and without Tea Cake, causing a lot of gossip.
In the course of the evening, Janie recounts her life story to her best friend, Pheoby.
We enter into a flashback of Janie’s youth.
Janie, whose beauty and sensuality shine through even in childhood, lives with her grandmother, Nanny, and grows up with a white family, the Washburns.
Janie plays with all of the Washburn children. She thinks she is white like them until she sees a photograph of all of the children and realizes she is black.
At age 16, Janie witnesses sexual union for the first time, between a bee and a pear blossom. She seems to live vicariously through it, is enchanted by it, and devotes her whole life to recreating that rapturous emotion.
She seduces a boy into kissing her, hoping to taste romance for the first time. Nanny sees her and tells her that she wants Janie to get properly married as soon as possible.
Soon afterward, Janie marries an old, ugly farmer named Logan Killicks at Nanny’s urging. She believes love will come with marriage, but it never does.
Roughly a year later, while Logan is out of town, Janie is smitten by an urbane, charismatic man who passes near her house. He gives her what Logan cannot—chivalry, sophistication, and the promise of a prosperous life. They court for about two weeks.
Janie has an argument with Logan that ends with him threatening to kill her.
Janie runs away with Joe Starks, the city man, and they get married. Their destination is Eatonville, a city unique because it is in the process of being built and run completely by black folks. The newlywed couple hopes to make their fortune there.
They quickly become favorites in the budding town—Joe for his business savvy and ability to manipulate crowds with his words and Janie for her great beauty. The store they build becomes the center of town, where everyone gathers to gossip. Joe is elected mayor.
Janie chafes under Joe’s rule, and she resents him for three things. The first is his tendency to silence her when she wants to speak her mind; he has a very specific view of what a woman’s proper place is. The second is his conception of what is proper for a mayor’s wife; he will not let her associate with the townspeople or attend social events. The third is his obsession with binding up her hair in public so that it cannot be seen.
Years into the marriage (around 1924), Joe hits Janie for the first time for not preparing his dinner properly. At this point, Janie realizes she no longer loves Joe and that she is saving herself for another man.
Years later, she insults Joe’s manhood in front of the townspeople, and he hits her again. Joe, who is already growing old, loses all will to live. He becomes bedridden, decimated by liver failure.
Janie consults her best friend, Pheoby, about how to make amends with Joe.
On his deathbed, Janie confronts Joe and speaks her mind freely. She tells him all of his faults and selfishness. He wishes death upon her just before he dies.
Joe’s death brings Janie a sense of freedom, and she enjoys her widowhood for several months.
Janie has hosts of suitors hoping to marry her for her wealth and beauty. She rebuffs them all.
Janie meets Tea Cake, with whom she has an immediate chemistry. Though Janie remains cautious about giving her heart away again, Tea Cake eventually wins her over with his fun-loving nature and selfless desire to please her.
Janie leaves Eatonville and marries Tea Cake in Jacksonville, but their union is not without its own obstacles. Tea Cake steals Janie’s money to put on a party. However, he returns to Janie telling the truth so she forgives him. He eventually wins the money back by gambling.
Janie and Tea Cake find employment and happiness in the Everglades, where they mingle with blue-collar migrant workers. Janie often works side by side with Tea Cake in the bean fields so they can always be near each other.
Janie learns that true love means feeling jealousy, instead of simply being the object of it. She becomes intensely jealous of a young girl named Nunkie with whom Tea Cake flirts. Janie gets so riled up that she tries to beat Tea Cake, but their rage eventually transforms into sexual desire and they make up rather steamily. Afterward, Tea Cake declares his undying love for Janie.
Janie is imposed upon by a mulatto woman named Mrs. Turner who worships Janie for her white features. Mrs. Turner wants to break up Janie’s marriage to darker-skinned Tea Cake and set her up instead with her own fair-skinned brother. Her plans never come to fruition, and Tea Cake eventually drives Mrs. Turner out of the Everglades.
When Janie is about 40 years old, a devastating hurricane hits the Everglades. Janie and Tea Cake struggle to find safety, heading toward Palm Beach. During their ordeal, Tea Cake is bitten by a strangely fierce dog while rescuing Janie from drowning.
After the storm, Janie and Tea Cake eventually return to the Everglades.
A month later, Tea Cake comes down with a disease that is eventually diagnosed as rabies. It changes his behavior, exacerbating his natural jealousy over Janie. When she tries to leave the house to get the doctor or check on his medicine, he’s certain she’s leaving to rendezvous with other men.
At last, the combination of Tea Cake’s jealousy and the rabies leads Tea Cake to try to shoot Janie. In self-defense, Janie shoots and kills him. He dies biting her arm, and Janie weeps over his body, thanking him silently for giving her the chance to love and be loved.
Janie is put on trial for Tea Cake’s murder. After giving her testimony, she is pronounced innocent and set free.
Janie puts on an elaborate funeral for Tea Cake, which many of the migrant workers attend.
Janie returns to Eatonville, where she intends to plant the seeds that Tea Cake left behind.
Janie’s story of her life, which she is telling Pheoby, ends, as does the flashback into Janie’s past.
Janie tells Pheoby that a person needs to experience life and find God for herself.
Janie enters her house and finds peace in the memory of Tea Cake.