Tess of the d'Urbervilles, like the other major works by Thomas Hardy, although technically a nineteenth century work, anticipates the twentieth century in regard to the nature and treatment of its subject matter. Tess of the d'Urbervilles was the twelfth novel published by Thomas Hardy. He began the novel in 1889 and it was originally serialized in the Graphic after being rejected by several other periodicals from July to December in 1891. It was finally published as a novel in December of 1891. The novel questions society's sexual mores by compassionately portraying a heroine who is seduced by the son of her employer and who thus is not considered a pure and chaste woman by the rest of society. Upon its publication, Tess of the d'Urbervilles encountered brutally hostile reviews; although it is now considered a major work of fiction, the poor reception of Tess and Jude the Obscure precipitated Thomas Hardy's transition from writing fiction to poetry. Nevertheless, the novel was commercially successful and assured Hardy's financial security.
Tess of the d'Urbervilles deals with several significant contemporary subjects for Hardy, including the struggles of religious belief that occurred during Hardy's lifetime. Hardy was largely influenced by the Oxford movement, a spiritual movement involving extremely devout thinking and actions. Hardy's family members were primarily orthodox Christians and Hardy himself considered entering the clergy, as did many of his relatives. Yet Hardy eventually abandoned his devout faith in God based on the scientific advances of his contemporaries, including most prominently Darwin's On the Origin of Species. Hardy's own religious experiences can thus be seen in the character of Angel Clare, who resists the conservative religious beliefs of his parents to take a more religious and secular view of philosophy.
The novel also reflects Hardy's preoccupation with social class that continues through his novels. Hardy had connections to both the working and the upper class, but felt that he belonged to neither. This is reflected in the pessimism contained in Tess of the d'Urbervilles toward the chances for Tess to ascend in society and Angel's precarious position as neither a member of the upper class nor a working person equivalent to his fellow milkers at Talbothays. Again, like Angel Clare, Thomas Hardy found himself torn between different social spheres with which he could not fully align himself. Tess of the d'Urbervilles reflects that divide.