With Tea Cake Janie recaptures the vitality of her youth and a mature freedom; with Joe she had lost her own identity and grown hollow.
When Janie first meets Joe Starks, he is taken with her, calling her "a pretty doll-baby." Then, when she goes with him and leaves Logan, Janie feels that from now on
...she was going to have flower dust and springtime sprinkled over everything.
Instead, she finds herself ordered about and made to be little more than decoration. For instance, he tells her to dress and stand in the store for hours. When people ask her to give a speech at an assembly, Joe forbids her to do so, and he tells the man who has asked, that God did not make her for speeches, but instead to sit in the store and be ornamental and submissive with her hair covered. She is merely an emblem of his success.
She wasn't petal-open anymore with him. She was twenty-four and seven years married when she knew.
Janie feels that she is saving her feelings for some one else. Then, one day, Joe dies; Janie becomes the owner and does well, enjoying her freedom. Then, one day a stranger comes into the store; he sits down and plays checkers with her. "They joked and went on till the people began to come in." Shortly, Janie feels as if she has known him for a long time--perhaps, all her life. "He looked like the love thoughts of women." Tea Cake reciprocates her feelings, telling her,
"Nobody else on earth kin hold uh candle tuh you, baby. You got de keys to de kingdom."
With Tea Cake, Janie attains the freedom she has not had with either of her men. The materialism of Joe is absent in Tea Cake, who possesses equalitarian qualities. For, it is of her own volition that Janie works in the fields, too. She and Tea Cake have many friends. But, Janie learns what it is to be jealous as girls come around looking for him, and she learns what her and Joe's marriage had been, "Mah own mind had tuh be squeezed and crowded out tuh make room for yours in me," Janie tells the man.
Janie and Tea Cake work together and enjoy their time. Janie becomes more aware of her inner self as she is allowed to be free....After Tea Cake is hurt, however, she must put him out of his misery from a snake bite. After this, Janie returns home, and her journey of self-discovery has been fulfilled with Tea-Cake's love and friendship.