Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles begins with the chance meeting between Parson Tringham and John Durbeyfield. The parson addresses the impoverished Durbeyfield as "Sir John," and remarks that he has just learned that the Durbeyfields are descended from the d'Urbervilles, a family once renowned in England. Although Parson Tringham mentions this only to note how the mighty have fallen, John Durbeyfield rejoices over the news. Durbeyfield arrives at home during the May Day dance, in which his daughter Tess dances. During this celebration, Tess happens to meet three brothers: Felix, Cuthbert and Angel Clare. Angel does not dance with Tess, but takes note of her as the most striking of the girls. When Tess arrives at home, she learns that her father is at the tavern celebrating the news of his esteemed family connections. Since John must awake early to deliver bees, Tess sends her mother to get her father, then her brother Abraham, and finally goes to the tavern herself when none of them return.
At the tavern, John Durbeyfield reveals that he has a grand plan to send his daughter to claim kinship with the remaining d'Urbervilles, and thus make her eligible to marry a gentleman. The next morning, John Durbeyfield is too ill to undertake his journey, thus Tess and Abraham deliver the bees. During their travels, the carriage wrecks and their horse is killed. Since the family has no source of income without their horse, Tess agrees to go to the home of the Stoke-d'Urbervilles to claim kinship. There she meets Alec d'Urberville, who shows her the estate and prepares to kiss her. Tess returns home and later receives a letter from Mrs. Stoke-d'Urberville, who offers Tess employment tending to her chickens. When Alec comes to take Tess to the d'Urberville estate, Joan thinks that he may marry Tess. On the way to the d'Urberville estate at Trantridge, Alec drives the carriage recklessly and tells Tess to grasp him around the waist. He persists, and when Tess refuses him she calls her an artful hussy and rather sensitive for a cottage girl.
When Tess meets Mrs. Stoke-d'Urberville, she learns that the blind woman has no knowledge that Tess is a relative. Tess becomes more accustomed to Alec, despite his continual propositions to her. She finds Alec hiding behind the curtains while Tess whistles to the bullfinches in his mother's bedroom.
During a weekend visit to Chaseborough, Tess travels with several other girls. Among these girls are Car and Nancy Darch, nicknamed the Queen of Spades and the Queen of Diamonds. Car carries a wicker basket with groceries on her head, and finds that a stream of treacle drips from this basket down her back. While all of the girls laugh at Car, she only notices that Tess is laughing and confronts her. Car appears ready to fight Tess when Alec d'Urberville arrives and takes her away. As Alec whisks Tess off, Car's mother remarks that Tess has "gotten out of the frying pan and into the fire."
On the journey home, Alec asks Tess why she dislikes when he kisses her, and she replies that she does not love him and in fact is sometimes angered by him. When Tess learns that Alec has prolonged the ride home, she decides to walk home herself. Alec asks her to wait while he ascertains their precise location, and returns to find Tess, who has fallen asleep. Alec has sex with Tess.
Several weeks later, Tess returns home. Tess tells Alec that she hates herself for her weakness and will never love him. While at home, Tess admits to her mother what happened and asks her why she did not warn Tess about the danger that men pose. Rumors abound concerning Tess's return to the village of Marlott. In fact Tess is pregnant and has bears the child months later. However, the child becomes gravely ill before she has had it baptized. Without the opportunity to call a minister, Tess baptizes the baby herself with the name Sorrow before it dies. When Tess meets the parson the next day, he agrees that the baby had been properly baptized, but refuses to give Sorrow a Christian burial until she convinces him otherwise.
Tess leaves Marlott once again to work at Talbothays dairy, where she works for Richard Crick and finds that Angel Clare, whom she vaguely remembers, now works at the dairy. The other milkmaids (Izz Huett, Retty Priddle, Marian) tell Tess that Angel is there to learn milking and that, since he is a parson's son, rarely notices the girls. Although his brothers are each clergymen and he was expected to be as well, Angel did not attend college because of philosophical and religious differences with his father and established church doctrine. He works at Talbothays to study the workings of a dairy in preparation for owning a farm himself one day.
Angel grows fond of Tess, and begins arranging the cows so that she may milk the ones that are her favorites. However, Tess learns from Dairyman Crick that Angel has scorn for members of noble families, even those whose families have fallen from prominence. Tess realizes that the three other milkmaids are attracted to Tess, but they know that Angel prefers Tess. When Tess overhears the three milkmaids discussing this, she feels jealousy at the others' attraction for Angel, and begins to believe that, as a working woman, she is more suited to be a farmer's wife than a woman of equal rank as Angel. Still, Tess retreats from Angel's affections until he finally declares his love for her.
Angel visits his home in Emminster, where he discusses the possibility of marriage with his parents. While visiting his family, Angel realizes how life at Talbothays had changed him. Although his parents suggest that Angel marry a local girl, Mercy Chant, Angel suggests that he should marry a woman with practical talents. His parents only consent when they feel certain that the woman is an unimpeachable Christian. When Angel returns from Emminster, he proposes to Tess, who rejects him without giving him a reason. Although he persists, she finally admits that she is a d'Urberville, thus a member of the type of family that he despises. When Angel remains unfazed by this news, she agrees to marry him.
Tess writes to her mother to ask whether she should admit the entirety of her past to Angel, but her mother assures her that she should not. Tess remains nervous concerning her impending marriage, attempting to postpone the date and forgetting to make important wedding plans. While in town with Angel, Tess sees a man who recognizes her from Trantridge and remarks on her questionable reputation. Angel defends her honor, but Tess realizes that she must tell him about her past with Alec d'Urberville. Tess writes Angel a letter and slips it under his doorway. The next morning Angel behaves normally. It is only on the day of her wedding that Tess finds that the letter slid under the carpet and Angel thus never found it.
After Angel and Tess marry, they go to Wellbridge for their honeymoon and remain at a home once owned by the d'Urbervilles. Tess learns from Jonathan Kail, who delivers a wedding gift from the Cricks, that the girls at Talbothays have suffered greatly since Angel and Tess left. On their wedding night, Angel and Tess vow to tell one another their faults. Angel admits that he had a short affair with a stranger in London, while Tess admits about Alec d'Urberville.
After telling Angel her story, Tess begs for forgiveness, but he claims that forgiveness is irrelevant, for she was one person and is now another woman in the same shape. She vows to do anything he asks and to die if he would so desire, but he claims that there is discordance between her current self-sacrifice and past self-preservation. Although he claims to forgive her, Angel still questions whether or not he still loves her. Angel's obstinate nature blocks his acceptance of Tess's faults on principle, and he remains with Tess only to avoid scandal until he tells her that they should separate.
That night, Angel begins sleepwalking and carries Tess out of their home and across the nearby river to the local cemetery, where he places her in a coffin. She leads him back to bed without waking him, and the next morning he seems to remember nothing of the event. Angel tells Tess that he will go away from her and she should not come to him, but may write if she is ill or needs anything.
Tess returns home, where her family remains impoverished and Tess has no place to stay. When Tess receives a letter from Angel telling her that he has gone to the north of England to look for a farm, Tess uses this as an excuse to leave Marlott. Angel visits his parents and tells them nothing about his separation, but they sense that some difficulty has occurred in his marriage. Angel decides to go to Brazil to look for a farm, although he realizes that he has treated Tess poorly. Before leaving for Brazil, Angel sees Izz Huett and proposes that she accompany him to Brazil. When he asks her whether she loves him as much as Tess does, Izz replies that nobody could love him more than Tess does, because Tess would give up her life for Angel. Angel realizes his foolishness and tells Izz that her answer saved him from great folly.
Tess journeys to Flintcomb-Ash, where she will join Marian at a different farm. On her way to the farm, Tess finds the man from Trantridge who identified her when she was with Angel, and he demands an apology for allowing Angel to wrongfully defend her honor. Tess hides from him, and after she is propositioned by young men in a nearby inn the next morning, she clips off her eyebrows to make herself less unattractive.
Tess works as a swede-hacker at Flintcomb-Ash, a barren and rough place. Marian believes that Tess has been abused and thinks Angel may be to blame, but Tess refuses to allow Marian to mention Angel's name in such a derogatory manner. Izz Huett and Retty Priddle join Marian and Tess at Flintcomb-Ash, and Tess learns that the man who insulted her is the owner of the farm where she works. Car and Nancy Darch work at this farm as well, although neither recognize Tess. Since the conditions at Flintcomb-Ash are so arduous, Tess visits Emminster to ask the Clares for assistance, but does not approach them when she overhears Felix and Cuthbert Clare discussing how disreputable Angel's new wife must be. While returning to Flintcomb-Ash, Tess learns that a noted preacher is nearby: Alec d'Urberville.
When Tess confronts Alec, he claims that he has a newfound duty to save others and feels that he must save Tess. Still, he seems to blame Tess for her tempting Alec to sin, and makes her swear never to tempt him again. Alec begins to visit Tess frequently, despite her overt suspicion and dislike for him, and even asks her to marry him and accompany him to Africa where he plans to be a missionary. Tess refuses and admits to Alec that she is already married, but Alec derides the idea that her marriage is secure and attempts to refute Tess's (and Angel's) religious views. Alec accuses Tess once more of tempting him, and blames her for his backsliding from Christianity. Alec soon disavows his faith and loses the adornments of it, returning to his more fashionable ways and giving up preaching. When Alec tells Tess that she should leave her husband, she slaps him and then refuses to back down when Alec appears ready to return her blow. She tells Alec that she will not cry if he hits her, because she will always be his victim.
Alec soon tries a different tactic to get Tess to submit to him; he attempts to dominate her by exerting financial superiority. Alec offers to support her family, but only as a means to make Tess and her family dependent. Tess returns home to Marlott when she learns that her mother may be dying and her father is quite ill, but soon after her return her father dies instead, while her mother recovers. After the death of John Durbeyfield, the family loses their home and must find accommodations elsewhere. They move to Kingsbere, where the d'Urberville family tomb is located. Although Alec offers to support the Durbeyfields, Tess refuses, even when he offers a guarantee in writing that he would continue to support them no matter the relationship between Tess and himself. When the Durbeyfields reach Kingsbere, they find no room at the inn where they were scheduled to stay, and thus must remain in the church near the d'Urberville family vault.
Angel Clare returns home from Brazil, weak and sickly, and finds the letter from Tess in which she claims that she will try to forget him. Angel writes to her home at Marlott to search for her, but only later finds out that the Durbeyfields are no longer at Marlott and that Joan does not know where her daughter is. Angel decides to search for Tess, and eventually finds her mother, who reluctantly admits to Angel that Tess is at Sandbourne, a thriving village nearby.
Angel finds Tess at an inn at Sandbourne, where she has been living a comfortable life with Alec d'Urberville. Tess tells Angel that it is too late, and that Alec convinced her that he would never return. Tess admits that she hates Alec now, for he lied to her about Angel. After Angel leaves, Tess returns to her room and begins to sob. Alec finds her, and after a heated argument Tess stabs Alec in the heart, killing him.
As the dejected Angel leaves town, he finds Tess following him. She admits that she has killed Alec, and the two continue along together to escape. They remain at a deserted mansion before continuing northward to find a boat out of England. They rest at Stonehenge; there Tess, who realizes that she will inevitably be captured, asks Angel to marry her sister, Liza-Lu, after she is gone. As Tess sleeps a party of men surround Angel and Tess to capture her and arrest her for Alec's murder. Tess is executed for her crime, while Angel does her bidding and presumably marries Liza-Lu.