tutorial, commentary, study resources, and web links
Amy Foster (1901) first appeared in the London Illustrated News and was published with Joseph Conrad’s other tales of endurance and extreme conditions, Falk, and The Secret Sharer, to form the collection Typhoon and Other Tales in 1903. What looks at first as if it is going to be a tale of positive redemption turns out to be a grim parable of a tragic or even pessimistic view of the world.
Amy Foster – critical commentary
The immigrant experience
Yanko’s anguished journey across northern Europe is a deeply felt account of emigration and social isolation – one which reflects the experience of the many thousands of souls who uprooted themselves in their search for a better life in the West. Yanko is culturally and linguistically cut off from everything he experiences in transit.
Conrad’s great artistic achievement in this story is in these passages is to show the world through the emigrant’s naive and unsophisticated point of view. Yanko doesn’t understand where he is or what is going on around him. But we know he is on the railroad, passing through Berlin, or embarking on the ship that is to take him to America – or Amerika, for this was the route to be taken by Kafka’s Karl Rossman only a decade and a half later.
The passages dealing with the shipwreck and its awful aftermath are ones which Conrad imagined many times in his reflections on tragedies and accidents at sea, from Lord Jim and Typhoon to The Shadow-Line.
When Yanko touches dry land the story takes on distinctly Dickensian tones of the inhospitable marshes, and Amy Foster’s gesture of bringing bread to succour a ragged and desperate fugitive in precisely the same location as Pip’s generosity to Magwitch is a pure echo of Great Expectations.
Yanko’s positive determination to survive is a contrast to the xenophobic reaction of the locals, who with the exception of Swaffer and Dr Kennedy treat him abominably. Yanko survives and even prospers, with the ‘immigrant mentality’ of sceptical but stoic endurance. He seems to eventually integrate successfully, and yet ultimately he is betrayed by his own rescuer. Amy denies him in his most extreme moment of need.
Conrad was not a religious man, but there is everything in the story to suggest a Christian reading of the tale. Yanko suffers exile, shipwreck, humiliation, whiplashes, stoning, scorn, and rejection – yet he endures and forgives those who torment him. And he is ‘rescued’ by a simple girl who takes pity on him.
Since Yanko comes from eastern Europe it is common for critics to read the story biographically. Conrad’s family suffered exile at the hands of the Russians, and Conrad himself was technically an outsider in English society – even though he became a naturalized British subject in 1886 as soon as he had completed his examinations for the merchant service.
A great deal is made in the story of Yanko’s inability to express himself – though Conrad had been tri-lingual (Polish, English, French) since his childhood.
In common with many of Conrad’s other tales and novels, the narrative is noticeably indirect. An un-named outer narrator introduces the story, but its main events are relayed to us by Dr Kennedy, one of the few local characters who is sympathetic to Yanko and his plight.
Amy Foster – study resources
Amy Foster – Oxford World Classics – Amazon UK
Amy Foster – Oxford World Classics – Amazon US
Amy Foster – Kindle eBook (includes screenplay)
Amy Foster – DVD film adaptation – Amazon UK
Amy Foster – eBook formats at Project Gutenberg
Joseph Conrad: A Biography – Amazon UK
The Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad – Amazon UK
Routledge Guide to Joseph Conrad – Amazon UK
Oxford Reader’s Companion to Conrad – Amazon UK
Notes on Life and Letters – Amazon UK
Joseph Conrad – biographical notes
Amy Foster – plot summary
Yanko Goorall is a poor emigrant from ‘the eastern range of the Carpathians’. His family have made sacrifices and raised the money to send him in search of a new life in America, via an unscrupulous organisation. He travels across Europe in very difficult conditions, and is then a sole survivor of a shipwreck off the coast of Kent.
He has lost everything, is hungry, wretched, and knows no English. For days he staggers around the coastal marshlands. When he comes into contact with local inhabitants, they regard him as a madman, shun him, and throw stones at him. Finally, a young woman Amy Foster takes pity on him and gives him something to eat.
A neighbour provides him with some rudimentary shelter, and he gradually starts working and making himself useful. Amy is attracted to his foreign appearance, and falls in love with him. Against opposition from neighbours and relatives, she marries Yanko and they have a son. He is even given a house in return for saving a child’s life.
Some time later Yanko falls ill and rapidly descends into a delirious fever in which he reverts to his native Polish. Amy takes fright and deserts him in his most urgent moment of need, when he is crying out to her for water. Next day he is dead.
Director Beeban Kidron (1997)
“Amy Foster”, renamed “Swept from the Sea”
starring Rachel Weiz and Vincent Perez
|the unnamed outer narrator
|a retired naval surgeon, and the principal inner-narrator
|the tenant at New Barns Farm
|an east European emigrant
|Yanko and Amy’s son
The Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad offers a series of essays by leading Conrad scholars aimed at both students and the general reader. There’s a chronology and overview of Conrad’s life, then chapters that explore significant issues in his major writings, and deal in depth with individual works. These are followed by discussions of the special nature of Conrad’s narrative techniques, his complex relationships with late-Victorian imperialism and with literary Modernism, and his influence on other writers and artists. Each essay provides guidance to further reading, and a concluding chapter surveys the body of Conrad criticism.
Joseph Conrad’s writing table
Amar Acheraiou Joseph Conrad and the Reader, London: Macmillan, 2009.
Jacques Berthoud, Joseph Conrad: The Major Phase, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978.
Muriel Bradbrook, Joseph Conrad: Poland’s English Genius, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1941
Harold Bloom (ed), Joseph Conrad (Bloom’s Modern Critical Views, New Yoprk: Chelsea House Publishers, 2010
Hillel M. Daleski , Joseph Conrad: The Way of Dispossession, London: Faber, 1977
Daphna Erdinast-Vulcan, Joseph Conrad and the Modern Temper, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Aaron Fogel, Coercion to Speak: Conrad’s Poetics of Dialogue, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1985
John Dozier Gordon, Joseph Conrad: The Making of a Novelist, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1940
Albert J. Guerard, Conrad the Novelist, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1958
Robert Hampson, Joseph Conrad: Betrayal and Identity, Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1992
Jeremy Hawthorn, Joseph Conrad: Language and Fictional Self-Consciousness, London: Edward Arnold, 1979
Jeremy Hawthorn, Joseph Conrad: Narrative Technique and Ideological Commitment, London: Edward Arnold, 1990
Jeremy Hawthorn, Sexuality and the Erotic in the Fiction of Joseph Conrad, London: Continuum, 2007.
Owen Knowles, The Oxford Reader’s Companion to Conrad, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990
Jakob Lothe, Joseph Conrad: Voice, Sequence, History, Genre, Ohio State University Press, 2008
Gustav Morf, The Polish Shades and Ghosts of Joseph Conrad, New York: Astra, 1976
Ross Murfin, Conrad Revisited: Essays for the Eighties, Tuscaloosa, Ala: University of Alabama Press, 1985
Jeffery Myers, Joseph Conrad: A Biography, Cooper Square Publishers, 2001.
Zdzislaw Najder, Joseph Conrad: A Life, Camden House, 2007.
George A. Panichas, Joseph Conrad: His Moral Vision, Mercer University Press, 2005.
John G. Peters, The Cambridge Introduction to Joseph Conrad, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
James Phelan, Joseph Conrad: Voice, Sequence, History, Genre, Ohio State University Press, 2008.
Edward Said, Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography, Cambridge Mass: Harvard University Press, 1966
Allan H. Simmons, Joseph Conrad: (Critical Issues), London: Macmillan, 2006.
J.H. Stape, The Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996
John Stape, The Several Lives of Joseph Conrad, Arrow Books, 2008.
Peter Villiers, Joseph Conrad: Master Mariner, Seafarer Books, 2006.
Ian Watt, Conrad in the Nineteenth Century, London: Chatto and Windus, 1980
Cedric Watts, Joseph Conrad: (Writers and their Work), London: Northcote House, 1994.
Other works by Joseph Conrad
Lord Jim (1900) is the earliest of Conrad’s big and serious novels, and it explores one of his favourite subjects – cowardice and moral redemption. Jim is a ship’s captain who in youthful ignorance commits the worst offence – abandoning his ship. He spends the remainder of his adult life in shameful obscurity in the South Seas, trying to re-build his confidence and his character. What makes the novel fascinating is not only the tragic but redemptive outcome, but the manner in which it is told. The narrator Marlowe recounts the events in a time scheme which shifts between past and present in an amazingly complex manner. This is one of the features which makes Conrad (born in the nineteenth century) considered one of the fathers of twentieth century modernism.
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Heart of Darkness (1902) is a tightly controlled novella which has assumed classic status as an account of the process of Imperialism. It documents the search for a mysterious Kurtz, who has ‘gone too far’ in his exploitation of Africans in the ivory trade. The reader is plunged deeper and deeper into the ‘horrors’ of what happened when Europeans invaded the continent. This might well go down in literary history as Conrad’s finest and most insightful achievement, and it is based on his own experiences as a sea captain. This volume also contains ‘An Outpost of Progress’ – the magnificent study in shabby cowardice which prefigures ‘Heart of Darkness’.
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© Roy Johnson 2012
Joseph Conrad web links
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Joseph Conrad – his greatest novels and novellas
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Joseph Conrad at Wikipedia
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Works by Joseph Conrad
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