When Parson Tringham makes a throwaway comment to the drunkard Jack Durbeyfield about his probable links to the ancient and noble D’Urberville family, he little imagines the trouble he is unleashing. Taking the comment as confirmation of his longstanding suspicion that he is too good for the humble existence fate has dealt him, Jack and his wife Joan decide to capitalise on their historic connections, sending their reluctant daughter Tess to visit a wealthy widow who goes by the name of D'Urberville. 

Feeling guilty over her part in an accident in which the family's horse, and only means of income, was destroyed, Tess agrees to go. She does not meet the widow but instead has a long and unsettling conversation with her son, Alec, who seems to take more than a cousinly interest in her. Soon Alec has contrived to have Tess employed on his mother’s farm, where he makes repeated attempts to seduce her. Tess resists but one night, after an argument with the farmworkers supposed to accompany her home, she finds herself alone in a wood with Alec. He takes advantage of her while she sleeps. There follows a short, confused relationship, which Tess breaks off to return home to her family. She gives birth to a frail baby, which soon dies.

Determined to make a fresh start, Tess sets out to find work as a milkmaid somewhere no one will know her scandalous history. For once, she seems to strike it lucky and is offered work at Talbothay’s dairy, a thriving business run by a good-humoured farmer and his wife. Among the many casual staff employed at the dairy is an educated young man, Angel Clare, who sparks a lot of interest in the milkmaids. In fact, Tess has seen him before; she was dancing with her friends prior to all her troubles and Angel passed by, pausing briefly to join in.

Tess and Angel fall in love. Overcoming his initial reservations about the differences in their background and education, Angel asks her to marry him. Tess resists for a long time, conscious that she has broken a social taboo and afraid that if Angel discovers her past he will not love her. But at last, she bows to the pressure of her feelings for him and accepts. However Tess’s conscience will not let her rest; in the months leading up to the wedding, she makes several abortive attempts to tell Angel the truth. Then, on their wedding night, Angel confesses to a previous physical relationship when he was a young man in London. Emboldened by his frankness, Tess finally tells her story. Angel is horrified and, after a few terrible days, he leaves her and sets sail for South America.

Unwilling to reveal to others what has happened, Tess gets work again. She moves from one hard job to another, and eventually stumbles upon Alec D’Urberville, who has become a radical Christian preacher. The sight of Tess reignites all Alec’s old feelings, and he throws over his new vocation to pursue her once more. Exhausted, despairing of ever hearing from her beloved Angel again, and worn down by the scandalous gossip about her past, Tess finally agrees to travel to the seaside town of Sandbourne with Alec and live as his mistress.

It is in Sandbourne that the repentant Angel finds her. In South America, after a bout of illness, he realised how foolish he was to leave Tess, and he has hurried home to rejoin her. Driven to her wits' end by the reappearance of the only man she has ever loved, Tess murders Alec. She escapes with Angel on foot, hiding in the countryside. But the forces of law and order catch up with Tess, and demand that she pay for her crimes with her life.