Joe Starks walks into Janie’s life at an opportune time. She is regretting her marriage to Logan Killicks and hankering to explore the world outside her gate.
Janie is immediately attracted to Joe and makes a show of pumping water to offer him a cool drink.
We learn that Joe is headed for a town built and run entirely by black people. He hopes to be a big man in the town and find his fortune.
He and Janie talk on and off for two weeks. Joe tells Janie that he wants to marry her, take her to the city, and make her a proper lady.
Soon, Janie runs away with him, and they head to Eatonville. Joe’s business savvy quickly reaps profits for them. He acquires more land for the town, opens a successful grocery store, and is elected mayor. But, his new wealth and position go to his head.
The first problem emerges at the store opening. After Joe gives a rousing speech and is elected mayor, the townspeople ask for Janie to speak. Joe doesn’t give her the chance, saying that it is not a woman’s place to give speeches.
He also forces Janie to keep her luxurious hair bound up while working in the store. He is secretly jealous of other men touching or looking at it. But, he doesn’t communicate his feelings to Janie—he just forces her to wear a head-rag.
Joe wins back some brownie points when he buys Matt Bonner’s poor, overworked mule simply so the mule can have some rest.
However, when the mule—who has become a town favorite—dies, Joe does not allow Janie to go to the dragging-out party/funeral, which is sure to be great fun.
About seven years into their marriage, Joe hits Janie for not preparing his dinner properly. After that, Janie falls out of love. She realizes she is saving herself up for some other man.
While Joe is growing old, he insults Janie to deflect people from noticing his age, but Janie won’t take it. Eventually, she fires back and insults his manhood, shaming Joe publicly.
Joe becomes increasingly ill and takes to his bed, refusing to see or speak to Janie.
The doctor diagnoses Joe with fatal liver failure.
Janie confronts Joe on his deathbed and basically tells him off. She lets out all the frustration she has been holding in these years and tells him how selfish he has been and why she doesn’t love him anymore.
With his dying breath, Joe wishes death upon Janie.