The main character of the story is a young worker who lives in the town of Hayslope, Loamshire. He is twenty-six and is one of the most skilled workers in the carpentry store where his brother Seth also works. We see the two brothers in the store, arguing about religious issues and learn the reason religion interests Seth at all: he is in love with Methodist preacher named Dinah Morris, who is going to speak a sermon tonight in their village.
Seth goes to the prayer, but he barely can wait to its end to speak to Dinah and make her a proposal. Unfortunately, Dinah refuses, leaving the man heartbroken. Adam, at that time, returns home and sees that his mother, Lisbeth, is alone at the house. She angrily tells him that instead of finishing the order for a coffin, his father Thias decided to go somewhere and get drunk. Adam has to work extra, to finish the coffin until the morning. Later Seth joins him and they manage to deliver the order in time. Their father haven’t returned yet to much anger of Lisbeth. When Seth and Adam return home after giving the coffin to the customer, they accidentally find the dead body of their father who drowned at night while returning home completely drunk.
We meet another character named Joshua Rann. He is the local parish clerk. We see him talking to Mr. Irwine, the Anglican preacher of the village about the Methodists coming to Hayslope and possibly causing problems. Mr. Irwine decides to investigate the case by himself. He and the young man named Arthur Donnithorne, the grandson of the local landlord, go to the Hall Farm, the place where Dinah stays with her aunt and uncle. Mr. Irwine, who is initially hostile, talks to Dinah and is deeply impressed by her faith and sincerity. Arthur in the meantime is more interested in another young niece of Mr. and Mrs. Poyser, named Hetty Sorrel. He flirts with her shamelessly and the girl is very glad to get so much of his attention.
After the talk about faith, Mr. Irwine also tells Dinah about the death of Thias Bede. The preacher immediately goes to the house of the deceased to pray with Lisbeth and help her cope. Arthur, still courting Hetty, learns that she is going to be near Chase where he lives very soon and plans to “accidentally” meet her there. He is the rich heir, who always considered him above simple peasants, so Arthur is ashamed to be attracted to her, but he can’t do anything with it. He waits for her in Chase and, when Hetty finally comes, he admits his love to her and even kisses her. This meeting meets Arthur even more uncomfortable and ashamed of himself and he seeks Mr. Irwine to confess to him as to priest and have at least some relief from his passion. But when he finally meets Mr. Irwine, catching him at Broxton parsonage the next day, Arthur can’t spit out what bothers him so much. In the meantime, Dinah, seeing great trouble that can follow the love of the landlord and a peasant girl, tells Hetty to come to her if she ever needs any help or just feel confused. But Hetty, too overwhelmed with her love and happy dreams, blatantly refuses the offer. Dinah has to leave soon and return to her own home in Snowfield, Stonyshire.
After the funeral of Thias Bede, Adam understands that he has to move on. He is now the new owner of the carpenter store and he is looking forward to marry. He is long in love with Hetty, but isn’t sure about her feelings. Hetty was always friendly to him, but it didn’t look like the same feeling he had. He goes to the Hill Farm to see her and her happiness gives Adam hope - he doesn’t know that Hetty is indeed in love, but not with him. Moreover, this evening he listens to the rumors told by Bartle Massey, the director of local schools. The keeper of the woods in Chase - a man who earned good salary working for the landlord - is also dead and the place is vacant. Adam thinks that it can be a good idea to try himself as new keeper of the woods and improve his financial status and become the most suitable match for Hetty.
Soon Arthur’s birthday arrives, he turns twenty-one. He calls everyone in his estate, including servants and workers to the birthday party. Adam, who is a new keeper of the woods, is also invited. Everyone in Chase loves kind and handsome Arthur, so all the personnel wishes him well. Arthur, in his turn, organizes village-style celebration with games, competitions and dances. Adam invites Hetty to dance and, while looking at her closely, discovers that she wears a locket - the one girls often receive from their lovers as a gift of devotion. Adam refuses to believe that Hetty may love anybody else than him. But the locket is given to her by Arthur as the symbol of their mutual love: they have a secret affair for a long time already.
Several weeks later, Adam does his job, examining the woods, but suddenly he spots Arthur and Hetty embracing passionately. Despite Hetty isn’t engaged with him, Adam is infuriated, he rushes to Arthur and starts a fight, knocking him out from the first kick. Hetty runs away. When Arthur regains his senses, Adam tries to threaten him into writing a note to Hetty about them breaking up. The men have a long talk about the hopeless love and the fate that is better for Hetty. Arthur understands that he can’t marry the girl so inferior to him, despite all his love, and he agrees to write a note. He gives it to Adam asking to give it to Hetty and decides to go away and enlist in the army. Arthur leaves and joins his new regiment in the south of the country. Adam in the meantime delivers the note to Hetty, but the girl, who always believed that Arthur was going to marry her, just refuses to admit the truth. Adam tries to comfort the girl in her despair. Hetty is mad with grief: she is eager to run away from home and follow Arthur, but her family keeps her home. Finally, Hetty seems to calm down and starts thinking about what to do now. She decides that Adam, who was so kind to her in her bleakest days, is a good suitor for her.
Adam sees that Hetty is again friendly to him and decides that her feelings towards Arthur weren’t serious. He finally makes a proposal to her and Hetty accepts it. Adam is incredibly happy, asking for three months to prepare a great wedding for Hetty and himself. But Hetty sinks into depression again, and now for another reason: she discovers she is pregnant by Arthur. This can ruin her life. The girl even considers suicide as an option, but finally she decides to make the desperate attempt to find Arthur. Telling the Poysers that she wants to visit Dinah before her wedding and stay in Snowfield for a couple of weeks, Hetty leaves the house, heading to Windsor where, as she heard, Arthur’s regiment is situated. She travels during seven days, alone, without any money. When she arrives at Windsor, Hetty is sick and barely able to walk. A friendly innkeeper has mercy on her and lets her stay and rest for a while. He and his wife care for her and even search for the information about Arthur’s regiment. It turns out that they have left for Ireland. Hetty faints, stroken by the news, but after a day she regains her courage and decides to return to Dinah, as she told to her family. She sells the jewellery Artur gave her to the innkeeper and gets money for her travel. The girl travels for five days more, but she feels unable to return home disgraced and again thinks about killing herself. She spends the whole night sitting near the pond, but doesn’t have courage to overcome her survival instinct and drown herself. Finally, she heads towards Stonyshire.
Adam waits for two weeks for Hetty to return and starts to worry. He decides to travel to Snowfield and learn what happening, bringing back his fiancee. When he reaches Snowfield, surprised people tell him that Hetty never arrived here. Adam decides that Hetty ran away to Ireland to follow Arthur and is going to go there and retrieve her. This plan is almost hopeless, so Adam comes to the parsonage to pray with Mr. Irwine and confess to him. But to his shock Mr. Irwine tells him that Hetty is in Stoniton, imprisoned and sentenced to death for murdering her unborn child. They immediately head to Stoniton and discover that it is true. Mr. Irwine returns to the Poysers to tell them the awful news. Adam rents a room in Stoniton to be near his beloved and try to save her in any way possible. Meanwhile, Arthur receives a note that his grandfather passed away and he, as a sole heir, have to return home now from his service in Ireland.
Adam doesn’t have the nerve to attend the trial. He sits in the room, devastated with everything that happened. Mr. Irwine and Bartle Massey, who have come to be with him, bring him news from the courtroom: Hetty is guilty. Adam refuses to believe it, but finally he gathers all his willpower and goes to the court. He sees two witnesses confirming Hetty’s guilt and hears the death sentence to her. At that time Arthur, who returned home, finds a note from Mr. Irwine about the fate of the disgraced girl and immediately leaves for Stoniton.
After the trial Dinah, as a preacher, asks for permission to come to Hetty’s cell and is allowed to do so. She was away for a long time, so the news came as a sudden shock to her. She talks to Hetty making her admit her guilt (which she refused to admit before, despite all the proofs of it) and pray, asking God to forgive her. Dinah brings Adam to her cell for them to have a final conversation before Hetty dies. Hetty tearfully asks for forgiveness and Adam gives it to her. In the morning Hetty is brought to the execution site, but at the very last moment, Arthur rides there holding the reprieve: Hetty’s sentence is commuted to the exile, she will live. Next day Arthur and Adam meet on the same place they had their fight. Arthur feels that everything that happened is his fault. He promises to go to war and not to return until he repents his sins. He asks Adam for forgiveness also and, after a long hesitation, Adam agrees to shake hands with him.
Eighteen months pass. Adam is visiting Hetty’s family in the Hall Farm. He came to ask Dinah to help his old mother and the preacher goes with him to comfort the old woman who can’t sleep at night. Dinah behaves strangely, embarrassed and blushing when Adam speaks to her. In the morning she leaves and Lisbeth has a talk to her son, explaining to him that Dinah loved him all along. Adam is shocked to hear that, but he analyzes her behaviour and admits that his mother is right. Moreover, it seems that he grew to love her too. This very day he goes to the Hall Farm again to propose to Dinah. With a heavy heart the woman refuses, because her duty of the preacher calls her to travel and care for poor and sick. She says that she has to continue her work and rethink her life before giving the final answers. Adam lets her go and returns to his average business. It is harvest time, so no one has either time or energy for sad thoughts and reflections.
After a month though Adam understands that he needs to know Dinah’s decision. He heads to her home and finds her on the hill, where Dinah accepts the proposal. After a month they have a humble but sincere wedding and all the villagers are glad to see them happy. After several years we see Seth and Dinah at home with Dinah’s children, waiting for Adam to return. Adam returns and says that he went to see Arthur, who brought the news about Hetty’s death and returned as a completely changed and much more mature man. Adam joins the peaceful family gathering and the story ends.