Tess Durbeyfield lives in the rural village of Marlott in southwest England. She first appears performing the May-Day dance, where she exchanges a meaningful glance with a young man named Angel Clare. Tess's family is very poor, but her father learns that he is descended from the d'Urbervilles, one of the oldest, noblest families in England. Although the d'Urbervilles have no wealth or power anymore, the Durbeyfields feel that this will improve their fortunes. When Tess mistakenly causes the death of Prince, the family's horse, she feels guilty enough to try and “claim kin” from some wealthy d'Urbervilles nearby, unaware that they aren't actually related.
Alec, the libertine son of old, blind, Mrs. d'Urberville, becomes infatuated with Tess and repeatedly tries to seduce her, but she rebuffs his advances. He gives her a job tending the fowls, and Tess feels that she can't refuse for her family's sake. One night after a dance in the local town Alec tricks Tess into accepting a ride home with him. He gets lost in the woods and leaves to find the path. When he returns he finds Tess asleep, and he rapes her.
Tess then returns to Marlott, and later gives birth to Alec's child. She avoids the other townspeople out of shame. Her baby soon gets sick, and Tess worries about his soul. She baptizes him herself, and names him Sorrow before he dies.
After a while Tess gets worn down by her community's judgment and decides to look for work elsewhere. She becomes a milkmaid at Talbothays dairy farm, and enjoys a time of contentment. She befriends three other girls, Izz, Retty, and Marian, and discovers that the man from the May-Day dance, Angel Clare, is also working there. He is the son of a parson, but is at Talbothays to learn about farming methods. All four women soon fall in love with him, but he chooses Tess and they begin a period of courtship. Angel asks her to marry him, but Tess refuses, feeling that she is not worthy of marriage. She is afraid to tell him the details of her past.
Angel returns home briefly and finds that his brothers, who are becoming parsons or deans, have grown more narrow-minded and disapproving. Strengthened in his convictions, he goes back and renews his proposal to Tess. She finally accepts, but is in constant turmoil. On their wedding night Angel admits that he had an affair with a woman in London, so Tess feels able to tell the truth about Alec. Angel is shocked and unforgiving, and he becomes distraught thinking of what his family and society would say if they found out. He gives Tess some money and leaves to clear his mind. He decides to seek his fortunes in Brazil, and asks Tess to not follow him.
Tess's money soon runs out and she feels ever more guilty and depressed. She works at a bleak starveacre farm with Marian, who has started drinking since Angel rejected her. Tess randomly meets Alec d'Urberville again, but now he has become an evangelical preacher, converted by Angel's father. When he sees Tess he becomes enamored once more, and quickly gives up Christianity to try and seduce her. Tess goes home to care for her mother, but soon afterward her father dies. The family is then evicted, and Alec offers to help them if Tess will return to him.
Meanwhile Angel, who has grown sick in Brazil, decides to come home and forgive Tess. When he finally finds her she is in a fancy boardinghouse, and she says it is too late for her, she has relented to Alec. Angel leaves, stricken, and Tess argues with Alec, ultimately stabbing him to death. Tess and Angel then escape together, with Angel unsure if Tess actually committed murder.
They hide in an empty mansion and have a few happy days, but then move on. One night they stop at Stonehenge, and Tess falls asleep on a monolith. At dawn the police arrest her. Later Angel and Tess's sister, Liza-Lu, hold hands and watch the black flag, the sign that Tess has been executed.