The novel is set in impoverished rural Wessex during the Long Depression. Tess is the oldest child of John and Joan Durbeyfield, uneducated rural peasants; however, John is given the impression by Parson Tringham that he may have noble blood, since "Durbeyfield" is a corruption of "D'Urberville", the surname of a noble Norman family, now extinct. The news immediately goes to John's head.
That same day, Tess participates in the village May Dance, where she meets Angel Clare, youngest son of Reverend James Clare, who is on a walking tour with his two brothers. He stops to join the dance, and partners several other girls. Angel notices Tess too late to dance with her, as he is already late for a promised meeting with his brothers. Tess feels slighted.
Tess's father gets too drunk to drive to market that night, so Tess undertakes the journey herself. However, she falls asleep at the reins, and the family's only horse encounters a speeding wagon and is fatally wounded. The blood spreads over her white dress, a symbol of forthcoming events. Tess feels so guilty over the horse's death that she agrees, against her better judgement, to visit Mrs d'Urberville, a wealthy widow who lives in the nearby town of Trantridge, and "claim kin", unaware that in reality, Mrs d'Urberville's husband, Simon Stoke, purchased the baronial title and adopted the surname though unrelated to the real d'Urbervilles ...