In Thomas Hardy's poignant narrative of Tess of the D'Ubervilles, the plight of the repressed woman in Victorian Times is clearly evident. Women were expected to be frail and virtuous--Tess is neither. With the strict code of high morality set for women, Victorian critics were incensed by Hardy's subtitle of A Pure Woman as it challenged this prevalent attitude.
The plight of Tess is also connected to the influence of the writings of Charles Darwin, writings that shook belief in all religion and the British social belief that they were the pinnacle of culture in their high-mindedness and refinement.
This attitude of superiority in Victorian society does, however, coincide with an outcome of Darwin's theory of survival of the fittest called Social Darwinism. Angel Clare expresses this concept when he expresses surprise that there are no "Hodges" at the Talbothay's Dairy--"Hodges" as a epithet for the conventional farm-folks, portrayed as "dummies." In fact, he surprised to find to find in Tess "the ache of modernism." That he so easily rejects Tess when she reveals her past is testimony to his attitude of social superiority.
For Tess and Angel, the God of their forefathers is no longer to answer their questions about life. Instead, under the influence of his era which Darwin profoundly affected, Hardy presents in his novel the primal force called Imminent Will which determines all things (and not well). Despite her innocence and her integrity, Tess is but a victim of this Imminent Will. Yet, this pessimism of Hardy contains a nostalgia for the old faith. In Tenebris, he wrote,
If way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the worst....Only when the fact and the character of social evils are recognized (and optimistic illusions stripped off) can we hope to study scientifically, and therefore partly control, their causes. And only when the fact of suffering and felt with pity can we hope to lessen the pain of existence by greater loving kindness.
(This philosophy rings of that of another famous Victorian, Charles Dickens.)
Another aspect of Victorian life depicted in Hardy's novel is that of the Industrial Revolution. With railroads being built in the southwest region of England where Tess lives, an isolated, almost medieval society became distantly connected to urbanization. For one thing, the railroad made it possible for the country folk to leave their areas in search of work. The Talbothay Dairy exists because of the railroad that transports its milk to London where "strange people we have never seen," as Tess remarks, will drink it. In contrast to the opportunities as a result of industrialization, the thrashing machine eliminated many jobs for the farm workers; less profitable small farms were bought by large farm owners and workers became disconnected to the land that had once belonged to families for generations. This plight of the land less and house less poor is depicted with the Duberyfields.
I highly recommend you read the information on this novel that is here on eNotes to prepare for your exam. If you click on the link "historical context" you will find valuable information about the Victorian time period in which this novel is set. You will be able to read about Darwinism and Social Darwinism, which was part of the Victorial Period, as well as the social issues of Victorian England. This was also the time of the Industrial Revolution and the differences between life in rural England versus city life is depicted in the novel.
The role of women during the Victorian period is also important in this novel and that, too, is explained in this section. It is important for you to understand "naturalism" and how it was portrayed in the many novels written by Thomas Hardy. The role of fate in the lives of his characters is an important theme and you may be tested on this.