This novel is the story of Janie Crawford's search for love, told, as noted earlier, in the form of a frame. In the first few pages, Janie returns to her hometown of Eatonville, Florida, after nearly two years absence. Her neighbors are curious to know where she has been and what has happened to her. They wonder why she is returning in dirty overalls when she left in bridal satin.
Janie tells her story to her friend Pheoby Watson, and after the story is over, the novelist returns to Janie's back steps. Thus, the story, which actually spans nearly 40 years of Janie's life, is "framed" by an evening visit between two friends.
The story that Janie tells is about love — how Janie sought love in four relationships. First, she looked for love from the grandmother who raised her. Next, she sought love from Logan Killicks, her first husband, a stodgy old potato farmer, who Nanny believed offered Janie security. Her third relationship involved Joe Starks. Their union lasted nearly 20 years and brought her economic security and an enviable position as the mayor's wife. Janie endured this marriage in the shadow of charismatic, ambitious Joe, a man who knew how to handle people, money, and power, but who had no perception of Janie's simple wish to be respected and loved.
Janie's final relationship was with migrant worker Tea Cake, who gave Janie the love that she had always desired. With Tea Cake, Janie was able to experience true love and happiness for the first time in her life. As a widow, Janie would sell Joe's crossroads store, close up her comfortable home, and leave with her new husband to share his life as a bean picker in the muck of the Everglades. Tea Cake introduced Janie to a new life in the Everglades. There she met new people, Tea Cake's fun-loving friends, and experienced another community. Her life with Tea Cake was far different than her life with Joe. This marriage and Janie's happiness lasted about 18 months — until a powerful hurricane devastated the land, and Tea Cake became a victim of it.
A few weeks after Tea Cake's death, Janie returns to Eatonville because she cannot bear to remain in the Everglades, where she is surrounded by memories of her beloved Tea Cake. She returns to her hometown, with her quest for sincere love having finally been fulfilled by Tea Cake. After an evening of retelling her past to her friend Pheoby, the story of Janie's life is complete.