The impoverished peddler John Durbeyfield is shocked to discover that he is the direct descendant of nobility – the D’Urberville family. Meanwhile, his older daughter, Tess, dances in the May Day dance alongside the other girls in the village. It is here where she first exchanges looks with a young man.
Her parents make the decision to send their daughter to the D’Urberville mansion, where they hope that the lady of the house will shower their daughter in riches. In reality, Mrs. D’Urberville is of no relation to Tess at all. He husband, Simon Stoke, changed his name to D’Urberville after his retirement.
Tess is unaware of this, and when the lascivious Alec D’Urberville offers Tess as job tending to the birds on the D’Urberville homestead, Tess feels obligated to accept. She feels guilt for an accident involving the family horse and their loss of income.
Tess goes on to spend several months working at the estate, growing to resent Alec for his continued attempts to seduce her. Eventually, Alec takes advantage of Tess in the woods one evening after a fair. Tess knows that she is not in love with Alec, so she returns to her family.
Soon, she gives birth to Alec’s child, who is named Sorrow. Sorrow passes away not long after birth, and Tess spends the next year at home before deciding to seek work elsewhere. She eventually accepts a job as a milkmaid at the Talbothays Dairy.
While there, she enjoys a time of contentment and is truly happy. She makes friends with three other milkmaids: Izzy, Retty and Marian. She eventually meets a man named Angel Clare, who she soon discovers was the man at the May Day Dance. Tess falls in love with Angel. They grow closer during her time at Talbothays, and eventually become engaged.
Still, she is haunted by her past and struggles with whether or not she should tell Angel. Wanting to clear her mind, she writes him a letter and slips it under his door. But, the note slides under the carpet and Angel never receives it.
Tess begins to struggle more. She is unable to find decent work and soon has to accept a job at a dishevelled farm. She attempts to visit Angel’s family, but overhears them talking about Angel’s ‘poor marriage’ and leaves. She hears a wandering street preacher and is shocked to discover that it is, in fact, Alec D’Urberville, who has found Christianity with the help of Angel’s father, the Rev. Clare. Alec and Tess are each taken aback by this encounter and Alec pleads with Tess to never tempt him again. Not long after, he begs Tess to marry him, having turned his back on his faith.
Tess’s sister, Liza-Lu, comes to tell her that their mother is on her death bed and this forces Tess to return home in order to care for the dying woman. Her mother recovers, but when her father dies unexpectedly, the family ends up being evicted from their home. Alec offers to help, but Tess refuses. She knows that in taking his help, she would be obligated to him.
Eventually, Angel decides to forgive his wife. He leaves for Brazil to find her. Instead, he finds her mother, who informs him that Tess has left for a village called Sandbourne. When he arrives, he finds Tess in a boarding house known as The Herons.
He begs his wife to take him back, but soon finds that he is too late. Tess had returned to Alec d’Urverville. Angel leaves, heartbroken to the point of insanity. Tess goes upstairs and stabs Alec to death. When the landlady finds Alec, she reports the death to the authorities, but Tess has already left to find Angel.
Angel promises to help Tess, however, he struggles to believe that she had actually killed Alec. The pair hide out in an empty mansion for the next few days, and then continue their travels. When they arrive in Stonehenge, Tess falls asleep, however, they are discovered the next morning by a search party. Tess is apprehended and sent to prison. Angel and Liza-Lu look on as a black flag is raised over the jail, alerting all to the execution of Tess.