Welcome to Egdon Heath, which Hardy describes in great detail. We meet Eustacia Vye, who longs to be a big-city girl and hates being stuck in podunk Egdon. She is having a clandestine romance with Damon Wildeve, but Damon is a player and ends up seeing another lady, Thomasin Yeobright, on the side. Thomasin and Damon try to elope, but botch it. A scandal ensues and Damon isn't sure which woman he wants after all. Thomasin is also loved by Diggory Venn, but she refuses his advances. Diggory tries to interfere in Eustacia and Damon's relationship, but it works itself out without him.
Meanwhile, Thomasin's cousin, Clym Yeobright, returns home from Paris, hence the title of the novel. Eustacia decides to fall in love with him since she loves Paris. Clym is likewise enchanted by Eustacia. But Clym's mother is less than thrilled with the situation. She and her son fight and then part ways on bad terms.
Clym and Eustacia get married and are happy for all of five seconds before Clym goes partially blind and the couple falls on bad economic times. Eustacia starts getting close to her former flame, Damon, once again.
Mrs. Yeobright tries to make amends with her son, but a series of misunderstandings leads to her death. To make matters worse, Eustacia is partially responsible for her death. After a tense period, Clym finds out what happened and has a horrible fight with Eustacia. The two separate and Eustacia considers running away with Damon, who offers to take her to Paris after he inherits a bunch of money.
Damon and Eustacia prepare to leave, but Eustacia remains very reluctant. On the night of their departure, a storm arrives and the two end up drowning. Clym is devastated, as is Thomasin, who is now a widow with a newborn baby. Time passes and the cousins recover. Thomasin marries Diggory Venn after all and Clym becomes a preacher.