Tess’s father, Jack, learns from Parson Tringham that his family descends from the noble d’Urberville line. He proceeds to get hammered.
Tess is introduced, dancing at a May dance. She is dressed in white but wears a red ribbon in her hair. A middle-class boy joins the group but does not dance with Tess.
Tess’s mother tells of her family’s news; her father has gone to the pub when he has a late-night delivery to make.
At the local pub, Tess’s mother reveals her plan to get Tess to marry into a wealthy family. Her father is too drunk to take the family’s bee-hives to market, so Tess feels she must go in his place. She falls asleep at the reins and the horse is killed in a collision with a mail-carriage.
Guilt-stricken, Tess accedes to her mother’s plan and visits the d’Urbervilles at Trantridge. The family, we learn, are not d’Urbervilles (they bought the name) but Alec does not tell Tess this. Alec forces Tess to eat strawberries from his hand in a clear sexual symbolism/foreshadowing.
Tess is reluctant to return to Trantridge, but her mother persuades her to do so for the good of the family.
Tess departs for Trantridge, allowing her mother to dress her. After she has left, Tess’s mother explains to her father that Alec will marry Tess because she expects him to get Tess pregnant.
Alec picks Tess up in a carriage but drives it too quickly in order to frighten Tess. He reveals that he is prepared to intimidate Tess into kissing him.
Tess is encouraged to whistle to Mrs d’Urberville’s poultry. Against her will, Alec teaches her to whistle.
Returning from a drunken night out, Tess almost gets into a fight with another of the girls from the farm. However, Alec intervenes and Tess decides to leave with him.
Alec leaves Tess while he tries to find a route home. When he returns, she is asleep on the ground and he forces himself on her.
Tess leaves Trantridge, arguing with Alec as she walks. She encounters a sign-writer who is painting quotations from the Bible on fences – each of which seems to speak of Tess’s “sin”.
At home again, Tess’s friends are curious about her glamorous encounter with a “gentleman”. She is pregnant and decides to hide herself from the people of the village.
Tess’s child is born but becomes terribly ill. Without being baptised, if the child dies, it will not ascend to heaven. Tess’s father refuses to allow a minister into the house to carry this out, and so Tess holds her own baptism. The child (Sorrow) dies and Tess asks the minister if her baptism would still count. After a short disagreement, he takes pity on Tess and says “it will be the same”. However, he will not allow the child to be buried in the churchyard. Instead, Sorrow is buried among the “drunkards, suicides and… the damned”.
After a period of mourning, and maturing, a rejuvenated and optimistic Tess sets out to seek work again at a dairy called Talbothays.
Tess travels to Talbothays dairy farm.
At the farm there is a “gentleman farmer” (Angel Clare) whom the milkmaids fawn over. He is the man Tess had seen at the may-dance, and who had not danced with her.
We learn that Angel is at the dairy trying to learn about farming, which he intends to make his profession. When he encounters Tess he is struck (again) by her beauty.
Tess and Angel spend more time together and clearly become close. Tess is able to talk about more intellectual matters than the other maids and this pleases Angel. However, when she hears that Angel “can’t stomach old families”, she decides not to reveal her d’Urberville heritage.
As the spring turns to summer, Tess and Angel get closer.
Tess overhears the story of Jack Dollop and is distressed as it reminds her that being pregnant outside marriage carries a social stigma. As she and Angel become closer, she is uncomfortable about the idea of ever marrying.
In conversation with Angel, Tess tries to suggest the other maids would make better wives than herself. Angel is undeterred, however.
On their way to church, Marion, Izz, Retty and Tess encounter a flooded road. Angel appears and carries them across- deliberately leaving Tess until last so they can be alone.
Angel finally confesses his love to Tess.
Angel returns home for a brief visit and attempts to persuade his parents that he should marry a farming woman. His parents snobbishly discard the gifts from Mrs Crick.
Angel continues to push the case for marrying Tess with his parents. Angel’s father has recently encountered a “young upstart named d’Urberville” and the pair almost came to blows.
Angel asks Tess to marry him. She refuses.
Tess is wracked with indecision. She continues to refuse Angel, but her resolve is weakening.
Mr Crick reveals that Jack Dollop has re-emerged, and married a woman who revealed – after they were married – that she was not who he thought. Tess continues to refuse Angel.
While taking the milk to the railways station, Tess begins to tell her story but Angel interrupts her and she doesn’t finish. He explains that he does not at all mind that she comes from an ancient family.
Tess’s mother replies to her letter and tells her not to reveal her past to Angel. Angel tries to set a date for the wedding but Tess evades the issue.
The date of the wedding is set for December 31st, and Angel buys Tess an array of clothing for the occasion. Tess writes her past in a confessional letter and slips it under Angel’s door.
Tess and Angel visit a local town so they might have one last day of pleasure as an unmarried couple. Groby – the farmer from Trantridge – sees Tess and comments on her sexual past. Angel hears and punches Groby, but the matter is resolved as a “misunderstanding”.
On their wedding day, Tess discovers her letter had slipped under Angel’s carpet and he had never seen it. Angel continues to dismiss Tess’s worries. They are married, then carried home in a d’Urberville carriage which has a superstitious meaning. They arrive at their honeymoon lodgings where Angel confesses he had had an affair with an older woman in London.
Tess tells her story and Angel is mortified. Tess offers to drown herself. They end their first night of marriage sleeping in different rooms.
Tess learns that a divorce is impossible, and Angel tells her she should go home.
Sleepwalking, Angel lifts Tess up and walks her to the churchyard where he lays her on a stone coffin. The following day he drops Tess near her village and tells her not to search for him – he will come to her.
At home, Tess is miserable. Her mother criticises her for telling Angel about her past. When she learns that Angel has gone north, she again leaves home.
Angel visits his parents, having decided to travel to Brazil where he will begin his farming career.
On the day he leaves, Angel asks Izz Huett to go with him. When he learns that she could not love him more than Tess, he goes alone.
In Brazil, Angel has become seriously ill. In her search for work, Tess heads for Flintcomb Ash. On the way there, she encounters some pheasants, wounded from a hunt, and puts them out of their misery.
Tess arrives at the farm – it is barren and cold. Marian is already employed there.
Izz Huett arrives at the farm and asks cautiously about Tess’s husband. Later, Tess learns that Angel had asked Izz to go to Brazil with him.
Tess visits Angel’s parents in Emminster, but is too embarrassed to ask for help. Returning home, she finds Alec d’Urberville – now reformed and a minister – preaching to the public.
Alec reveals that Tess remains a temptation to him and asks her to swear on “Cross-in-Hand” not to tempt him again. She later discovers the cross is a “thing of ill omen”.
Alec visits Tess at Flintcomb-Ash and asks her to marry him. She refuses. Alec confesses that his religious zeal has faded since re-meeting Tess.
Alec visits Tess while she works in the field. He again accuses her (and Angel indirectly) of being responsible for his loss of faith. He finishes by angrily asserting that by the natural law, she is his wife.
Alec visits Tess again. Tess is worried about her family and is tempted to give in to Alec in order to help them. That night she writes to Angel, asking him to return and help her.
In Brazil, Angel is persuaded that Tess is pure (and that intention is more important than action). Tess’s parents are struggling, so Tess goes to visit them.
At home, Tess begins helping to cultivate a plot of land so they can grow some food. Alec again visits but Tess refuses his offer of help. Her father suddenly dies of a heart attack.
Tess and her family prepare to move to Kingsbere having lost the lease on their house. Alec offers to help, but Tess refuses him.
In the d’Urberville vault at Kingsbere church, Tess wonders why she is alive. Alec again offers to help – again she refuses. Izz and Marian write to Angel warning of Alec’s closeness to Tess.
Angel returns home. He is gaunt and ill. He receives Izz’s and Marian’s letter.
After a frantic search, Angel learns Tess is now in Sandbourne.
Finally tracking Tess don, Angel discovers he is too late. She has given in to Alec’s advances. Angel leaves, distraught.
In frustrated anger, Tess stabs Alec to death before fleeing after her husband.
Tess and Angel, on the run from the police, find a haven in an old mansion.
Tess and Angel enjoy five days of uninterrupted happiness. Finally, they continue their journey, arriving at Stone Henge, where the police find them. Tess puts up no resistance.
A black flag flies at Wintoncester as a sign of a hanging. On a nearby hill, Angel and Liza Lu pause for a moment before joining hands and walking on.