Janie is struck by the seemingly-magical union between a bee and a pear blossom in her youth. This affects her deeply and makes her seek true love throughout her whole life.
Janie’s first two marriages turn sour. The first one ends in disaster because Janie never had any feelings for the man, Logan Killicks, in the first place and only married him when pressured by Nanny. Logan, a no-nonsense man, doesn’t help matters by practicing poor hygiene and concerning himself only with working the farm.
Janie’s second marriage to Joe Starks starts out more promisingly, but goes awry when Joe proves to be irrationally jealous. Worse, he refuses to talk about it. He only orders Janie around, making her keep her hair up, not allowing her to engage with the townspeople, and never allowing her to speak her mind.
In both marriages, Janie’s high hopes for true love were shattered. Yet she holds out hoping to eventually meet another man…
Eventually, Janie does meet the love of her life, Tea Cake. Initially, Janie is worried because she’s been hurt before and doesn’t want to jump into another marriage until she’s sure it will be a loving union, like the pear blossom being pollinated by a bee. Tea Cake has several strikes against him: he’s twelve years younger than Janie and he’s poor. Janie’s not sure if he’s just after her for her money.
When she does marry him, Janie finds Tea Cake is not without flaws. He’s a gambler and has the tendency to disappear for days at a time without an explanation and this causes Janie considerable worry. Also, he is an attractive young man and often attracts female attention. This makes Janie experience jealousy for the first time. Tea Cake himself feels a measure of jealousy concerning Janie, too, especially when the name of Mrs. Turner’s son is mentioned.
Tea Cake’s pride keeps him from heeding the warnings of a coming hurricane. He decides that he and Janie should remain in the Everglades and sit out the storm. However, the hurricane comes on strong, creating chaos and danger. While attempting to reach higher ground, Tea Cake is bitten by a rabid dog.
A short time later, rabid Tea Cake and frightened Janie point guns at each other. Tea Cake has accused Janie of not treating him right and running off to see other men. Janie tries everything in her power to make Tea Cake lower the gun. But his illness has hold of him, which is like a fiend driving him to kill. Janie shoots in self defense and ends up killing her husband.
Instead of being allowed to mourn her husband in peace, Janie is brought to trial the same day for Tea Cake’s murder. The black community that knew and loved her so well is dead set against her; they feel she has betrayed the staunchly loyal Tea Cake. Janie gives her heartfelt testimony and the verdict eventually comes – innocent. Janie goes free.
After the trial, Janie buries her beloved Tea Cake and eventually returns home to Eatonville.
At home, Janie tells Pheoby the whole story. She has learned two life lessons – that people must go out and live their lives (not simply stay home and gossip) and that they must find God for themselves. The novel ends with Janie coming to terms with Tea Cake’s death. She thinks of Tea Cake, grateful that he gave her the chance to love and live fully.