Janie Crawford, an African-American woman in her forties, recounts her life starting with her sexual awakening, which she compares to a blossoming pear tree kissed by bees in spring. Around this time, Janie allows a local boy, Johnny Taylor, to kiss her, which Janie's grandmother, Nanny, witnesses.
As a young slave woman, Nanny was raped by her white owner, then gave birth to a mixed-race daughter she named Leafy. Though Nanny wanted a better life for her daughter and even escaped her jealous mistress after the American Civil War, Leafy was later raped by her school teacher and became pregnant with Janie. Shortly after Janie's birth, Leafy began to drink and stay out at night, eventually running away and leaving Janie with Nanny.
Nanny, having transferred her hopes for stability and opportunity from Leafy to Janie, arranges for Janie to marry Logan Killicks, an older farmer looking for a wife. However, Killicks doesn't love Janie and wants only a domestic helper rather than a lover or partner; he thinks she doesn't do enough around the farm and considers her ungrateful. When Janie speaks to Nanny about her desire for love, Nanny, too, accuses Janie of being spoiled and, soon afterwards, dies.
Unhappy, disillusioned, and lonely, Janie leaves Killicks and runs off with Jody (Joe) Starks, a glib man who takes her to the all-black community of Eatonville, Florida. Starks arranges to buy more land, establishes a general store, and is soon elected mayor of the town. However, Janie soon realizes that Starks wants her as a trophy wife to reinforce his powerful position in town and to run the store, even forbidding her from taking part in the town's social life. During their twenty-year marriage, he treats her as his property, criticizing her, controlling her, and physically abusing her. Finally, when Starks's kidney begins to fail, Janie says that he never knew her because he would not let her be free.
After Starks dies, Janie becomes financially independent through his estate. Though she is beset with suitors, including men of means, she turns them all down until she meets a young drifter and gambler named Vergible Woods, known as "Tea Cake". He plays the guitar for her and initially treats her with kindness and respect. Janie is hesitant because she is older and wealthy, but she eventually falls in love with him and decides to run away with him to Jacksonville to marry. They move to Belle Glade, in the northern part of the Everglades region ("the muck"), where they find work planting and harvesting beans. While their relationship is volatile and sometimes violent, Janie finally has the marriage with love that she wanted. Her image of the pear tree blossom is revived. Suddenly, the area is hit by the great 1928 Okeechobee hurricane. Tea Cake is bitten by a rabid dog while saving Janie from drowning and becomes increasingly jealous and unpredictable. When he tries to shoot Janie with his pistol, she fatally shoots him with a rifle in self-defense and is charged with murder.
At the trial, Tea Cake's black male friends show up to oppose her, but a group of local white women arrive to support Janie. After the all-white jury acquits Janie, she gives Tea Cake a lavish funeral. Tea Cake's friends forgive her, asking her to remain in the Everglades. However, she decides to return to Eatonville. As she expected, the residents gossip about her when she returns to town. The story ends where it started, as Janie finishes recounting her life to Pheoby.