Hardy's chronologically told story starts with an event calculated to provide an in-depth character sketch of the heroine and her son Randolph. They are at a public concert in a "neighboring parish" thus strangers to the locals who are all curiosity to know about the delicate looking woman with intriguingly arranged hair who is in a wheelchair. This exposition equally importantly establishes the relationship of domineering superiority her "twelve or thirteen" year old son has over her as he "fastidiously" corrects her grammar in a manner "that was almost harsh."
Hardy then gracefully dips into her backstory that takes us to the village of Gaymead when she was a young woman of nineteen and in love with Sam, a gardener ... and Sam was in love with her--Sophy. This flashback opens when Sophy's employer's wife has just died and she and Sam are tentatively speaking of what will come next: Will she stay with the widower vicar? Will she wait for Sam to prepare her a home and marry him? Before the hardest of these questions could be satisfactorily answered, Sophy fell down staris while removing a tray from the vicar's sickroom. The surgeon says it is such a bad injury she will never walk or work normally again.
As a result, the vicar saw his way clear to owning and stating his feelings for her. She consented to be his wife; he takes a lucrative vicarage in South London; their son is born and generously educated among the best; and fourteen years later, she still is ill-favored in society because she speaks in a lower dialect of English and has ...
confused ideas on the use of 'was' and 'were,' which did not beget a respect for her among the few acquaintances she made.
Eventually she is widowed, her son enters college to become a clergyman, and she encounters Sam seemingly by chance one day. They proceed to rekindle their friendship and romance but when Randolph is notified by her of their intentions to marry, he exerts his male veto authority over her by bursting into a protest of "passionate tears":
He hoped his stepfather would be a gentleman? he said.
'Not what you call a gentleman,' she answered timidly. ... The youth's face remained fixed for a moment; then he flushed, leant on the table, and burst into passionate tears.
As time goes by, Sophy tries again and yet again and always receives the same authoritative negative veto on her plans and happiness. In the end, the veto wins out as she dies alone leaving Sam to continue to live alone. Randolph is a clergyman himself now and rides in the carriage that bears his mother to her grave in Gaymeade. The procession passes Sam who mourns the loss of love and life while Randolph looks like so many black clouds in his stern person, clothes, and profession:
From the railway-station a funeral procession was seen approaching ... towards the village of Gaymead. [A] man, whose eyes were wet, held his hat in his hand ... while from the mourning coach a young smooth-shaven priest in a high waistcoat looked black as a cloud ....