First published in the Illustrated London News in 1901, “Amy Foster” was republished in Typhoon, and Other Tales in 1903. According to biographer Frederic Karl, Joseph Conrad’s idea for the subject of the story came from his friend and sometime collaborator Ford Madox Ford, who mentioned it in his Cinque Ports (514). The story of a misunderstood Polish castaway powerfully captures English xenophobic fears at the turn of the century.
“Amy Foster” uses a frame narrative like the one Conrad famously used in Heart of Darkness; an unnamed narrator retells the story he heard from his friend Dr. Kennedy, a country doctor with a “penetrating” mind who takes an interest in the personalities of the villagers who are his patients. Kennedy tells of Amy Foster, a stoic and reserved young woman whose “heart was of the kindest” and who takes pity on a wandering tramp whose ravings terrify the other people he encounters. As it turns out, Yanko is not a tramp but a Polish castaway who survived the wreck of a ship that was taking him from his home in Austria to America, where he hopes to find work and start a new life. The frightened and bewildered Yanko is pelted with stones by children and locked in a barn by a farmer who fears him. Taken in by a neighbor, Yanko gradually proves himself by his hard work and heroism and learns English. A handsome man, he courts and marries Amy Foster, who has fallen in love with him. Once she has his child, however, she comes to fear Yanko’s alien ways, especially the prayers and songs he croons in Polish, longing for his son to share his language and assuage his loneliness. Her passion for him becomes “fear resembling the unaccountable terror of a brute.” He dies in a fever, abandoned by his terrified wife. In a last bit of irony, the reader is told that their boy is called Johnny, meaning Little John, the translation of Yanko’s name.
Conrad’s story, told in a realist style, is deeply infused with irony and symbolism. The bay looms behind the quiet life of the village in the first lines of the story, representing the presence of the rest of the world that the townspeople cannot quite keep out. Conrad, heavily influenced by the adventure tale, uses the expected outlines of the story of a castaway washed up in a new land to tell a much darker, ironic story. Yanko’s kindness and intelligence cannot overcome the prejudices of the townspeople against his foreignness; he comes to represent essential human loneliness, the loss of idealism, and turn-of-the-century fears of solipsism, all common themes in Conrad’s works. Echoing the central question of Conrad’s The Nigger of the “Narcissus” (1897), Amy fears that Yanko is “shamming” illness, highlighting the story’s themes of miscommunication and fears of an inauthentic self. The description of the now “passive” and “inert” Amy, who becomes brutishly terrified of her kind husband, also references contemporary discourse on atavism and degeneracy, which Conrad further explores in his 1906 novel The Secret Agent. One of the story’s deepest ironies is that it is the English who are cruel and un-Christian, not the foreign man they fear. Conrad’s own history as a Polish immigrant to this area of England clearly influenced “Amy Foster,” which highlights failures of communication between people of different ethnicities and between men and women, as well as concerns about the author’s ability to communicate with his audience.
Conrad, Joseph. Typhoon and Other Tales. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Karl, Frederick R. Joseph Conrad: The Three Lives. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979.
Knowles, Owen, and Gene M. Moore. Oxford Reader’s Companion to Conrad. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.