John Durbeyfield learns that he is descended from the Norman family of d'Urbervilles. He and his wife, Joan, encourage their daughter, Tess, to befriend the family of Stoke d'Urbervilles. In doing so, she is seduced by their son, Alec, and she bears him a child that dies.
In order to make a fresh start, Tess goes to work in Wessex on the Talbothays farm, where she meets Angel Clare, the younger son of a parson who asks her to marry him. After some uncertainty, she agrees. However, when Angel learns of her past on their wedding night, he rejects her.
When he leaves for Brazil, Tess begins to work at another farm, in the employ of the tyrannical Farmer Groby. She once again meets Alec d'Urberville - and so begins a chain of events that culminates in tragedy for all.