The adult Janie returns to Eatonville without her new, young lover and without her silk dresses. The town is curious about what happened to her, and Janie tells her best friend, Pheoby, the story of her life. We jump into a flashback to Janie’s youth.
As a teen, Janie has the formative experience of sex and love under the pear tree and makes it her life goal to find true love evocative of that experience. Nanny has different plans for Janie and guilt-trips her into marrying Logan, a man she doesn't love. Because Logan shows no affection for Janie and represents nothing pretty or romantic, Janie eventually leaves him to elope with Joe.
Janie’s second marriage to Joe Starks brings her to the all-black community of Eatonville and into the lofty position of mayor’s wife. However, her life grows stifling when Joe begins confining her to the store, habitual silence, and an annoying head-rag. Janie chafes under his iron rule for about 20 years until his merciless insults make her lash out and publicly insult his manhood. (Ouch.)
Joe is devastated by this blow to his pride and takes to his deathbed. In his death scene, Janie finally works up the courage to speak—telling Joe that he is nothing but a big voice and has sinned against her. His death symbolizes Janie’s emergence into freedom as a mature woman.
Janie discovers true love with Tea Cake, who makes her feel like a young woman again. Janie creates a scandal when she leaves the town of Eatonville to marry Tea Cake and head to the Everglades. In the Everglades, Janie mingles happily with the lower working classes, content as long as she is with Tea Cake. Though their relationship isn't perfect, they're able to grow from each trial—learning trust through Tea Cake’s stealing of Janie’s money and his flirtation with Nunkie.
However, disaster comes in the form of a hurricane, and Tea Cake’s actions before and during the storm condemn him to death. After Tea Cake is bitten by a rabid dog, Janie is forced to watch her beloved suffer and turn hostile toward her in his diseased state. She shoots him to save herself and is put on trial. With her authoritative and moving testimony, she convinces the jury to acquit her.
Janie returns to Eatonville because the Everglades remind her too painfully of Tea Cake. In telling her story to Pheoby, she reconciles herself to Tea Cake’s death. In the end, she's at peace with Tea Cake’s death and feels she's lived a full and satisfying life.