Amy Foster is thought to have been inspired by Joseph Conrad's brief stay in London, when he was an impressionable 21-year-old Polish-Russian seaman, and was taken aback by the hostility he faced as a foreigner who could speak no English. The pain of that experience surfaces in Yanko after he encounters the wary, close-minded locals of Cornwall.
Amy Foster lives a mundane existence working as a servant to the Smith family at New Barns Farm in a coastal fishing village. Shunned by the community for her alleged simple-mindedness and the reputedly scandalous circumstances of her birth, she is further rejected by her parents, who view their daughter as little more than a burdern and a curse, a blight on their existence.
Even the village doctor, Dr. James Kennedy refers to her as a strange creature. To the world, Amy Foster is a girl who never smiles, but beneath her passive exterior, there is a hidden passion. She is free-spirited, a pagan sprite, who dances in the storm winds and is enraptured by the beautiful sea. Amy finds solace in her "secret world" - a shoreline cave filled with gifts from the sea. Yanko Gooral turns out to be the most unusual of those gifts.
Swept into her life like a piece of driftwood comes this earthy adventurer who has left his Ukrainian homeland beyond the Carpathians in search of the new world - America. However, his ship is overcrowded and ill-maintained, and during a murderous tempest, Yanko is washed overboard and becomes the sole survivor. Struggling across the moors, he stumbles onto New Barns Farm and becomes a stranger in a hostile land.
Put off by his strange language and his filthy appearance, Amy's employer brands him as an escaped lunatic, refusing his desperate pleas for food and water. Attacked and knocked unconscious, he is imprisoned in the farm's woodshed and left to live or die.
Amy takes pity on him and sees the gentle, civilized man behind the frightened eyes, and shows him kindness. She knows he means no harm. She brings Yanko food and water and cleanses his wounds. The two are bound forever by Amy's act of compassion, each finding kindred spirits in one another. After he recovers from his injuries, Yanko is taken in as an unpaid laborer by Mr. Swaffer, the district's richest landowner and his invalid daughter.
When the shoreline is choked with the bodies of the hundreds of unlucky souls who did not survive the shipwreck, the villagers are shocked by the horror, but fail to see the cruelty they are inflicting on the disaster's sole survivor. Their hypocrisy is exposed by Dr. Kennedy, whose compassion toward Yanko marks the beginning of a devoted friendship.
As the most educated man in the area and the only one who's traveled
outside England, it is Dr. Kennedy who guesses that Yanko is not the guttural idiot the
villagers take him for but an intelligent man speaking a foreign language. The two men
bond through a mutual love of chess, and though Yanko gradually learns English, he cannot
change the suspicion the town feels toward him.
Amy and Yanko begin a courtship which ignites the hatred of the community including her family. The villagers try to tear them apart and, at the instigation of Amy's father, their antagonism erupts into a violent and vindictive campaign against the young couple. Even though Amy is considered to be a simpleton, she is still one of them and Yanko is still perceived as an outsider within their closed society. Amy and Yanko fight against the opposition, refusing to give into the pressures applied by a society that never accepted them separately, much less together. Amy further inflames tensions by consenting to marry the young foreigner.
When Amy gives birth to a son, the new family's happiness seems assured, but a cruel fate awaits. In a moment of great need, Amy reaches out to her family and neighbors for help, only to be rebuffed again with hostility and hate.
In the face of despair, she finds salvation in the redeeming power of forgiveness, conviction and love.