Set in England from the early 1870s onward, the novel is about a young, pious woman from a poor working-class family who, while working as a kitchen maid, is seduced by another employee, becomes pregnant, is deserted by her lover, and against all odds decides to raise her child as a single mother. Esther Waters is one of a group of Victorian novels that depict the life of a "fallen woman".
Written in a Zola-like naturalistic style, the novel stands out among Moore's publications as the book whose immediate success, including Gladstone's approval of the novel in the Westminster Gazette, brought him financial security. Continuously revised by Moore (1899, 1917, 1920, 1931), it is often understood to be his best novel.
Esther Waters is dedicated to T. W. Rolleston.