The scene begins with a middle-aged peddler, named John Durbeyfield. Making his way home, the man encounters Parson Tringham, who claims to have studied history. The Parson tells Durbeyfield that he is of noble lineage, the d'Urberville family, and his family has prospered for many generations until recently. Tringham tells his him however that this heritage comes from such a long period of time ago that it is worthless. At this the seemingly drunk man sits near a road and beckons a young boy to fetch him a horse and carriage to take him home in his newly liberated state.
Tess, the eldest daughter of the Durbeyfield family, has accompanied the other women in the village, young and old, to celebrate May Day. All of the women are clothed in white, but not the same shade of white, as noticed by the narrator. They all hold white flowers in one hand and a white wand made from oak in the other. This celebration commemorates the coming of spring, and all the women enjoy it, as it seems, because it allows them to forget their insignificant role in society. In the middle of the procession, John Durbeyfield rides along in his carriage, making quite a spectacle. Tess is embarrassed, and three very attractive (and obviously rich) brothers walk in. Only one of them, the youngest stays to dance, while his brothers continue their journey. All the women are anxious to be picked to dance by him, for all dream of a better life as the wife of a gentleman. Tess is chosen to dance with the young man, and before they can even exchange their names, the boy runs off to catch up with his siblings.
Upon Tess' arrival home after the festivities, her mother, Joan confronts her with two important pieces of news. She relates that their family has been found to be of noble blood, and that John has been diagnosed with a heart condition. Tess sees the Compleat Fortune-Teller, a book full of superstitions that her mother follows for guidance. Mr. Durbeyfield is not home, but rather at Rolliver's, the local inn and drinking hole, celebrating the news of his new "wealth". Obviously, the man spends a many hours there, and it is no surprise that he has not returned home. Joan, leaving Tess to tend her 5 siblings, leaves to fetch her husband. Mrs. Durbeyfield, however enjoys sitting along with her husband because it is the only time they can spend in each other's company alone. After no one returns, Tess sends her brother Abraham to get her parents, and when he doesn't return, she goes herself.
Upon arriving at the inn, young Abraham, hears his mother and father discussing their plans for Tess. They intend to send her to a rich Mrs. d'Urberville a couple of towns away so that she may be able to claim kin and reinitiate her family to its previous wealth. Tess then arrives at the alehouse, and realizes that her father will be too drunk to take his beehives to the market the following day. He says that it is not so and just needs a couple of hours of rest, but already it is 11 o'clock, and to get to the market he would need to leave at about 2. As expected, Joan wakes Tess early, telling her that her father simply cannot make the journey. The girl objects to having to go, but is convinced when her mother allows Abraham to accompany her. After setting off for the market, the siblings have an early meal in the carriage and begin to discuss their parent's plans for Tess. The conversation turns to stars, and Abraham asks his sister whether or not there are worlds like ours in those stars. She agrees, but says they must be better then theirs and the world their family lives on is the cause of financial difficulty.
Abraham falls asleep shortly after, and not having anything to tend to (Tess assumes Prince, the horse, cannot move fast enough to cause injury), follows suit. Tess dreams of a charming man of nobility, who begins to grimace and laugh at her poverty. The two...