On a hot summer evening the residents of Eatonville, one of the first towns owned and run by blacks, are shocked to see a bedraggled Janie Sparks walking down the street. Janie is the widow of the town's first mayor, but she left two years ago to marry a man 10 years her junior.
Janie greets her old neighbors, but doesn't stop to talk. Instead, she makes her solitary way to the house she formerly shared with the mayor. While the others gossip about her appearance and speculate on what events brought her home, her best friend, Phoeby, puts together a bowl of rice to take to Janie for dinner. Janie is grateful for the food and asks Phoeby to sit with her while she eats and soaks her tired feet. She then tells Phoeby the story of her life.
A schoolteacher had raped Janie's mother, and she gave birth to Janie, before abandoning her. Janie grew up living with her grandmother, who she called Nanny. At the age of 6, Janie saw a picture of herself with the white children Nanny took care of. For the first time, she realized she was black. Nanny, who had once been a slave, dreamed of a better life for her granddaughter, one that included a husband and security.
One day Nanny wakes from a nap to see 16-year-old Janie kissing a young man over the fence. Nanny is convinced she needs to put her plan in motion right away. Janie pleads differently, but Nanny insists she marry a much older man, Logan Killicks, whom they know from their church. Nanny wants to die knowing her granddaughter will have someone to protect and take care of her.
Janie convinces herself that once she is married, she will come to love her husband, but it never happens. Alone and lonely on Logan's farm, Janie dreams of a different life where she can be loved for the person she is, and not for her looks or the things she does around the house. After a year of marriage, Logan is no longer satisfied with Janie's beauty. He wants her to help out more on his farm. He sets her to planting potatoes while he takes a trip to another town in search of a mule Janie can use to plow. While Janie plants, she spies a handsome stranger who is whistling as he walks down the road. The two strike up a conversation that leads to flirting. The stranger, Joe Sparks, convinces Janie that marriage to a poor, old farmer is not what she deserves.
When Logan returns, he insists Janie help him move a manure pile, but she refuses. She hints that she might leave him for a better life, but he laughs off her threat and tells her that if she did run away, she'd soon be back because she doesn't know how to work. Janie fixes him breakfast and then runs away with Joe.
At first her marriage to Joe is a good one. He has money and ambition and likes how Janie's good looks complement him. Joe takes Janie to a town in Florida, which is entirely owned by black people, but the two are disappointed with its poor condition. Joe immediately goes to the nearest landowner and buys 200 acres of adjoining property. He begins building a general store and a nice house for himself and Janie. When the store is finished, he hosts a party for the townspeople and makes a fancy speech. The locals elect him as their mayor.
Now that Joe has achieved his goal of running the town, he exerts his power over Janie. He insists she spend her time working in the store. She must also keep her beautiful long hair covered, as he doesn't want any other man to touch it. He warns Janie not to get too friendly with the locals. She is the mayor's wife, and as such, is better than them. Janie resents his interference in her social life, but his abusive nature keeps her from reaching out to make friends. The other women believe Janie to be prideful, but soon they, and the men who spend their days on the store's porch, notice how Joe berates her. Although the locals wonder at how good their marriage is, only Phoeby tries to make friends with Janie.
The porch sitters, as Janie refers to them, often make fun of one man's old mule. When they spot the donkey wandering through town, they take turns abusing it. The poor animal tries to fight back, but the men beat it more. Joe overhears Janie's whispered disapproval of their behavior and, in a rare gesture of generosity, offers to buy the mule from its owner. The mule becomes a fixture in the town with the porch sitters telling wild stories about how it spends its days. When the mule dies, the entire town shows up to give it a funeral, except for Janie, who has been ordered to mind the store.
After 17 years of marriage, Joe's health declines. Once robust and larger than life, he has begun to shuffle and grow an old man's paunch. Janie, although almost 40, remains a beautiful woman. Jealousy seeps into Joe's already controlling nature, and he verbally abuses Janie even more, especially in front of the townspeople. She continues to silently take it until one day she snaps. With the porch sitters as witnesses, she points out Joe's physical faults. He strikes her and orders her to leave the store and not come back.
Joe's health continues to decline, but he refuses to let Janie call a doctor. Instead, he puts his faith in local medicine men. He suspects Janie of poisoning him, and the townspeople gossip that it might be true when they learn that Joe won't even sleep in the same bedroom as his wife. By the time Janie gets a real doctor out to see him, it is too late. Joe dies of kidney failure. Although she no longer loved Joe, she spares no expense for his funeral. She keeps the store but now refuses to wear the head rags to cover her hair. She also hires someone to help mind the store so she can socialize with the porch sitters when she wants. Many men court Janie for her money, but she enjoys her newfound independence.
One day a handsome and charming young man known as Tea Cake visits the store, while most of the town is attending a ball game. Shocked that she doesn't know how to play checkers, he offers to teach her the game. Janie resists her growing attraction to Tea Cake, fearing not only the disastrous end of her two previous marriages, but the 12-year age difference between them. Tea Cake is persistent and patient; he assures Janie that she is a beautiful and desirable woman.
The townspeople gossip about their relationship, believing that the younger Tea Cake is only after Janie's money. Phoeby cautions her friend, but Janie insists that Tea Cake has money of his own and loves her for herself. She follows Tea Cake to Jacksonville so they can marry. Tea Cake finds the $200 she hid inside her clothes just in case things didn't work out between them. While she's asleep, he takes the money, leaving her to worry that he's left her. He returns that night and assures her of his love. He couldn't resist throwing a party for all the men he worked with down at the railroad. He is surprised when Janie tells him that she would have liked to attend the party. He thought his friends weren't in her social class, so he didn't include her. She convinces him that she doesn't hold to that kind of prejudice; his friends are her friends. Tea Cake wins Janie's money back by gambling, and the two head to the Everglades to work the sugar cane and bean fields.
Janie sets up house while Tea Cake works in the fields. Their home becomes a social place for the other migrant workers who gather at night to hear Tea Cake play the guitar and tell stories. When Tea Cake repeatedly sneaks off the job to see Janie throughout the day, she asks him why. He tells her it's because he misses her so much. Janie asks if she can go out in the fields with him, and he readily agrees. Janie is soon accepted among the other migrant workers as they can see the deep love she and Tea Cake share for each other.
Janie and Tea Cake share two years of marriage together before a hurricane hits the Everglades. The couple fights the rising waters and driving rain to seek shelter on higher ground. At one point, Janie is swept away by the water only to find safety by holding onto a cow. Although a wild dog on the cow's back tried to force Janie to let go, Tea Cake comes to her rescue and stabs the dog, but not before it bites his cheek. Three weeks later, while they are trying to put their home back together, Tea Cake becomes ill. He is feverish and unable to swallow water. Janie calls a doctor and receives the devastating news that Tea Cake has rabies. The doctor agrees to try and get Tea Cake medicine, but warns Janie to stay away from her husband as it may be too late and he may become violent. Janie refuses to have Tea Cake taken to a hospital and restrained, insisting that she can take care of him until the medicine arrives to heal him.
Unfortunately, Janie is wrong. When Tea Cake stumbles outside to go to the bathroom, Janie finds a loaded pistol under his pillow. Afraid he'll get angry if she hides the gun, she removes three of the bullets and makes sure the loaded chamber is empty. Her worst fears are realized later that night when Tea Cake, in a fit of rabid paranoia, pulls out the pistol and tries to shoot her. Janie must take a rifle and kill her husband in self-defense.
The local white population is much kinder to Janie than the migrant workers she has called friends. The police, doctor and judge immediately put Janie on trial for murder, as the law demands, but they know they will not convict her. Tea Cake's friends want to testify about his peaceful nature, not believing that he would ever harm Janie. The court refuses to hear their arguments, and Janie is found not guilty. When Tea Cake's friends see how Janie arranges a funeral to rival an Egyptian pharaoh's, they forgive her, knowing she must have truly loved him to give him such a send-off. Janie tries to live alone in the house she shared with Tea Cake, but cannot bear to be there without him. She decides to make the long trip back to Eatonville to live in the house Joe Starks left her.
Janie finishes telling her sad tale to her friend Phoeby, who agrees to tell the townspeople what has happened. Janie's story of love inspires Phoeby to be kinder to her own husband. The friends part for the evening. As Janie prepares to go to bed, she realizes she has found contentment with her life. Even though she misses Tea Cake deeply, she is grateful for the time they had together and for all the life she experienced while with him.