Their Eyes Were Watching God follows the life of Janie Crawford, a girl of mixed black and white heritage around the turn of the century. As an adolescent, Janie sees a bee pollinating a flower in her backyard pear tree and becomes obsessed with finding true love. From there, the novel documents her emotional growth and maturity through three marriages.
Janie’s first marriage to farmer Logan Killicks is planned and executed by Janie’s well-intentioned grandmother, Nanny. In this marriage, Janie chafes under the uninspired but reliable Logan. After he threatens to kill her for not obeying him, she leaves Logan for the suave and ambitious Joe Starks.
Joe takes Janie to Eatonville, Florida America’s first all-black city, where she lives the high life as the mayor’s wife. However, Janie finds that her husband has very rigid definitions of a woman’s role. Joe often silences Janie and refuses to listen to others’ opinions. As Joe grows old, he tries to divert public attention from his failing body by accusing Janie of acting too young for her age. Finally, Janie can’t bear it anymore and lashes out at Joe, insulting his manhood and pride. Joe is deflated and takes to his deathbed, refusing to let Janie visit him. In his final living moments, Janie busts into his room and speaks her mind to Joe.
After his untimely death, Janie dons widow’s clothes and lives happily single until she meets a slick and fun-loving vagrant named Tea Cake. Though Tea Cake is twelve years younger than Janie, with him she finds the true love she has dreamed of all her life. In their relationship, both sides experience bouts of jealousy, yet Janie and Tea Cake eventually find happiness working in the fields of Everglades and mingling with the migrant workers.
Disaster arrives in the form of a hurricane. Tea Cake is given plenty of warnings about its coming and even an opportunity to flee from it, but he chooses to stay on the "muck" for love of money. The hurricane strikes with divine ferocity, forcing all the Everglades’ inhabitants to either leave or die. While fleeing the storm, Tea Cake saves Janie from a ferocious dog, but is himself bitten. From this unfortunate event, Tea Cake gets rabies and his natural jealousy turns into aggressive suspicion and paranoia over Janie. In the end, Janie is forced to shoot her husband to protect herself. Though she is put on trial for murder, she is pronounced innocent.
After Tea Cake’s funeral, Janie returns home to Eatonville. There, she meets up with her old friend, Pheoby Watson, and tells her the whole story. This narration to Pheoby provides the framing for the whole novel.