The novel is set in impoverished rural England in the 1870s. Tess is the oldest child of John and Joan Durbeyfield, uneducated peasants. However, John is given the impression by Parson Tringham that he may have noble blood, as “Durbeyfield” is a corruption of “D’Urberville”, the surname of an extinct noble Norman Knowledge of this 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.
Tess’s father gets too drunk to drive to the market that night, so Tess undertakes the journey herself. However, she falls asleep at the reins, and the family’s only horse, Prince, encounters a speeding wagon and is fatally wounded. Tess feels so guilty over Prince’s death and the economic consequences for the family that she agrees, against her better judgment, to visit Mrs d’Urberville, a rich widow who lives in a rural mansion near the town of Trantridge, and “claim kin”. She is unaware that, in reality, Mrs d’Urberville’s husband Simon Stoke adopted the surname even though he was unrelated to the real d’Urbervilles.
Tess does not succeed in meeting Mrs d’Urberville, but chances to meet her son, Alec, who takes a fancy to Tess and secures her a position as poultry keeper on the estate. Late one night, walking home from town with some other villagers, Tess inadvertently antagonizes Car Darch, Alec’s most recently discarded favourite, and finds herself in physical danger. When Alec rides up and offers to “rescue” her from the situation, she accepts. Instead of taking her home, however, he rides through the fog until they reach an ancient grove in a forest called “The Chase”, where he informs her that he is lost and leaves on foot to get his bearings. Alec returns to find Tess asleep, and it is implied that he rapes her.