When the novel opens, the main character Janie Crawford returns from burying her husband. Her friend Pheoby visits her shortly after this and solicits Janie's entire life story. Hurston uses this as a frame narrative to tell the real story, which follows Janie from her childhood, through her three marriages, and up to the burial of her one great love, Tea Cake. This frame narrative begins when Janie's a little girl and learns that she's different from the white children that she's played with for her whole life. At six years old, Janie realizes that she's African American. Years later, she kisses a boy over a wooden fence, and this event leads to Janie's sexual awakening. She sits under a big, flowering pear tree, which becomes a symbol of her sexuality.
Her grandmother, Nanny, worried about Janie's sexuality, marries her off to a man named Logan Killicks, whom Janie doesn't love. He treats her badly, working her like a dog on their farm, and she doesn't regret leaving him for Joe Starks, a wealthy man who treats her like a queen—at least at first. Together, the new couple travel to Eatonville, where Joe Starks throws around his money and builds a general store that entices more people to move to the town. For his trouble, Jody, as Joe's called, is elected Mayor. His first order of business is to order new streetlamps for the town.
Janie feels ambivalent about some of the changes in her life. She spends most of her time tending the store Jody built. This makes life boring, and her only real distractions are the townsfolk, who have a hard time relating to her because she's the Mayor's wife. In fact, many of them harbor bad and, in some cases, sexual thoughts about her. Many of these men are her husband's friends. She listens to them talking on the porch, but isn't allowed to join in, and must stand at a remove as an old mule belonging to Matt Bonner dies, as her husband solidifies his position as Mayor, and as she's gradually silenced by his bullying. When he starts beating her, she realizes that she's fallen out of love with him. When she makes a cutting remark about his manhood, he falls ill and dies.
Not long after Jody's funeral, men start courting Janie, realizing that she's rich. However, Janie is enjoying her freedom and doesn't intend to marry again. This all changes when Tea Cake appears one day. He's a brash, romantic, flirtatious young man who manages to win Janie over, in spite of his bad drinking and gambling habits. When people find out about their relationship, they're mad and look down on Janie with scorn, so Janie decides to sell the store and leave Eatonville so that she and Tea Cake can get married.
Janie and Tea cake settle in Jacksonville, Florida. Their life there isn't perfect, and Tea Cake has a habit of disappearing at night, gambling away their money, and placating Janie by playing her songs on his guitar. Then one night Tea Cake steals the $200 Janie brought as emergency money and throws a giant party without inviting her. When he tries to win the money back by gambling, one disgruntled loser stabs him. Still, he makes the money back and then some: $312. Following this incident, Janie and Tea Cake move down to the Everglades, where they live in a little hut and become bean farmers. They also do a bit of hunting and sell animal skins in Palm Beach.
It isn't long before Tea Cake's eyes start to wander. Janie grows jealous of a "chunky" girl named Nunkie, who works with Tea Cake and is constantly teasing him. Janie lashes out at Nunkie, and this leads to a fight with Tea Cake; but the two make up fairly easily. Later, a woman named Mrs. Turner tries befriending Janie, but she turns out to be a racist who thinks that light-skinned black people are better than their dark-skinned counterparts. This leads to another fight, in which Mrs. Turner's hand is injured and Tea Cake has to restrain a belligerent man. This, despite the fact that Tea Cake has started beating Janie on a semi-regular basis.
One day, Janie sees a band of Seminoles passing by, as if running away from something. It turns out that there's a storm coming, but the workers don't realize it until the very last minute, and Tea Cake is too stubborn to leave in a timely manner. Janie and Tea Cake get caught in the great 1928 Okeechobee hurricane, a real hurricane that was one of the deadliest on record. They're unable to escape the flood and have to struggle to stay afloat. In this process, they run into a rabid dog that bites Tea Cake in the face. When the hurricane dies down, Tea Cake helps to bury the dead, and things appear to return to normal. Then Tea Cake starts having symptoms. When he tries to shoot her, Janie is forced to put him down.
Janie stands trial in front of an all-white jury for the murder of Tea Cake. His death is determined to be accidental and understandable, given the rabies, and Janie's free to go. She buries Tea Cake in Palm Beach, then returns home to Eatonville. This ends the frame narrative and brings us back to Pheoby, who has been listening to Janie's story this whole time. In the end, Janie doesn't regret what happened and says that the only things people have to do are go to God and figure out how to live for themselves. She's done the latter, and this makes her happy.