In the small English village of Marlott, which lies in the fertile, pastoral Vale of Blakemore, the women are performing the May-Day “clubwalk,” a tradition descended from a pagan fertility ritual. Tess Durbeyfield, a beautiful, fresh-looking girl, is one of the walkers. She sees her father riding by in a carriage, drunk and rambling about his family's vault. The other women make fun of him, but Tess comes to his defense.
The description of the village and valley shows a part of society that is more in tune with Nature and seems to exist in a pre-industrial era. Tess herself is first revealed at the fertility ritual of May-Day, which begins her portrayal as a Nature goddess, and the rural women as symbols of pagan innocence.
When the women reach the village green they begin to dance. They are watched by three Clare brothers, Angel, Cuthbert, and Felix, who are students and members of a higher social class. The two older brothers scorn the ritual and the rural town and soon continue on their way, but Angel can't resist joining in the dance. He chooses a partner other than Tess, and she is quietly disappointed. Eventually he has to leave with his brothers. As he departs, Angel turns back, sees Tess, and wishes briefly he had chosen her as his dance partner instead.
The scorn of Cuthbert and Felix is a symptom of their middle-class separation from rural life and the natural, pre-Christian innocence of the Marlott women. Angel's shared glance with Tess foreshadows much of what is to come, especially the fact that his spontaneous action has such a lasting effect on her spirits.