Despite certain weaknesses in its thought and plot-construction, as well as the frank treatment of sex in it, it has never ceased to appeal to readers, nor forfeited its claim to being one of the greatest of English novels. Much of the poignancy of this novel is due to its depiction of the helplessness of the condition of its central figure, Tess, in the face of Fate or Providence, which forms one of Hardy's recurring themes.
The story of the novel centers round the major character Tess Durbeyfield whose father, a farmer living in the village of Marlott in the Blackmoor Vale, grows crazy about learning from a person that he is a descendent of the ancient manorial family of the D'Urbervilles. She has to go, on the insistence of her mother and much against her will, to a lady of the newly-rich family at D'Urbervilles living in the neighborhood to claim her relationship with it and get some help from the lady. There she comes across the lady's son, Alec D'Urbervilles, and is seduced by him much against her wish. She then comes back to her home where she gives birth to a child who dies soon after.
Tess now leaves her home, and begins to work as a dairymaid at Talbothays. There she meets a clergyman, Angel Clare, who works as a farmer too to gain knowledge of farming through practical experience of it. Angel and Tess begin to love each other. Angel wants to marry Tess, but she hesitates because of what she thinks to be her sinful affair with Alec. Because of the over enthusiasm of Angel Clare, she is prevented from revealing the secret about her past to him, and Angel marries her. On the wedding night, both make confessions about their past affairs, Tess telling about her affair with Alec. On hearing her blemished story Angel Clare's dreams of an ideal girl for his wife are shattered. He abandons Tess and goes to Brazil, leaving some money to her. All this money is soon spent by her to support herself and her parents. Helpless and destitute, she works hard at the Flintcomb-Ash farm to earn a living. Getting no news about Angel, she goes once to pay a visit to his family; but confronted with adverse comments made by his brothers about her, she comes back without meeting his parents. On her way back, she meets her former seducer, Alec, who has now become a religious preacher. Unmindful of his religious vocation, Alec renews his attention to Tess, and offers to support her family. Compelled by circumstances and moved by the predicament of her shelterless parents, Tess accepts him on his own terms.
Meanwhile, Angel Clare, who feels repentant over having deserted his wife, returns from Brazil, and finds Tess having reluctantly gone back to Alec. Tess finds herself in a fix on seeing Angel come back. In utter despair and anger, she murders Alec, who has wronged her for the second time now. She goes with Angel Clare in concealment to the New Forest where they pass a week happily together. Finally, she is arrested by the police at Stonehenge, and is tried and executed for having committed the murder of Alec D'Urbervilles. And that signifies the end of the sport of the President of the Immortals with her, as well as that of the novel.