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Joseph Conrad’s “Amy Foster:”Informing the Debate on Syrian Refugee Resettlement - by Sherrie Hind

Joseph Conrad’s “Amy Foster:”

Informing the Debate on Syrian Refugee Resettlement

Sherrie Hind

Ellen Perry


11 April 2021

Stories that insightfully explore universal human themes, such as belonging and alienation, have epistemic value in that they can lead to new understandings of human perspectives and attitudinal changes. “Amy Foster,” Joseph Conrad’s short story about cultural loneliness, is one such literary classic. Conrad describes the story of Yanko, a shipwrecked immigrant who struggles to integrate into his new cultural environment. The charity and kindness that he finds in one village girl, Amy Foster, helps him to adapt; however, his story ends tragically with his recognition that his differences will never be fully accepted, and his hopes for cultural affinity with his son will not be actualized. In modern times, the United States is publicly debating its commitment to provide a safe haven for Syrian refugees who have suffered trauma in their own country. These refugees arrive speaking a different language, and with different customs and values—differences which may arouse fear and opposition in the American population. Considering the parallels between Yanko and the Syrian refugees, Conrad’s story—which humanizes the Other, and cultivates feelings of empathy—could be used as an educational tool to mitigate prejudice and increase acceptance of cultural differences.

Both Yanko and Syrian refugees arrive in their host countries traumatized by tragic circumstances, and both receive harsh receptions from the local populations.

Yanko barely escapes a shipwreck, which leaves him in a disoriented and frightened mental state when he first arrives. He has no financial resources, he has no knowledge of the local language, and he is generally lacking in worldly sophistication or cultural competence—described by one character as “[knowing] nothing of the earth” (Conrad 327). Arriving in this desperate state of need, Yanko finds himself angrily rejected, berated, and assaulted by the people he beseeches for aid (Conrad 332). Conrad’s vivid description of Yanko’s thoughts allows a reader to vicariously experience—and condemn— the inhumane response of the villagers:

He remembered the pain of his wretchedness and misery, his heartbroken astonishment that it was neither seen nor understood, his dismay at finding all the men angry and all the women fierce. He had approached them as a beggar, it is true, he said, but in his country, even if they gave nothing, they spoke gently to beggars. The children in his country were not taught to throw stones at those who asked for compassion (Conrad 336).

Like the destitute and shipwrecked Yanko, Syrian refugees also arrive in the United States due to harrowing circumstances beyond their control. Psychologically, they have been traumatized by the war in their country; materially, as one refugee, Zainab, describes it, “Before we had everything and when the war started, we had nothing” (Ugurel Kamisli). They arrive in the United States in need of shelter and a way to make their livelihood, but they are often confronted with hostility, and have to live with “feelings that we are not wanted” as another refugee, Lana, explains (Ugurel Kamisli). Americans express their opposition to the refugees through calls to political representatives, opinions expressed in newspapers and on radio talk shows, and organized public protests (Urtzan et al. 136). In 2015, a national poll showed that more than half of Americans at that time did not want Syrian refugees settling in the country (Koc and Anderson 792). By 2018, Syrian refugee resettlement in the United States had been reduced by 98 percent (Utrzan et al. 129), even though by that same year, more than five million people had fled Syria (Koc and Anderson 791). The hostile receptions that are portrayed by Conrad and experienced by the Syrian refugees are similar social group responses, and Conrad’s story further explores what motivates some humans to reject others.

An important theme in “Amy Foster” is a common source of prejudice—fear and distrust of that which is different and unknown—that is also a factor influencing negative attitudes toward Syrian refugees.

This human tendency is presented as “the fear of the Incomprehensible that hangs over all our heads” (Conrad 324). The villagers are first afraid of Yanko because of his disheveled appearance and “senseless speech” (Conrad 332-333); however, even after Yanko adapts to the local culture and learns the language, he is still too different for them. He practices his religion in a different way, he speaks in a different manner than they do, and he maintains habits—such as singing exuberantly—that seem culturally inappropriate to everyone. In the words of one character, “at last people became used to seeing him. But they never became used to him” (Conrad 341). Their reactions extend beyond mere dislike; when Yanko becomes engaged to Amy Foster, people begin to actively express the distrust and anxiety that they still feel toward him. For example, Amy’s employer objects to the courtship because he had always suspected that Yanko was either insane, or that he was tricking them with “his cunning” (Conrad 343, 332, 337). The whole community begins to instill their fear and distrust of Yanko into the kind heart of Amy Foster (Conrad 343-344), who ultimately succumbs to an “unreasonable terror of that man she could not understand” and abandons him in his serious illness (Conrad 347). This tendency of humans to dislike and fear differences also has a significant parallel to the contemporary debate about accepting Syrian refugees. Studies have found that differences in language and religion are significant contributors to negative American opinions about Syrian refugees (Adida et al.), and community organizations working to resettle Syrian refugees in the United States report that their communities have expressed fear of them (Urtzan 136). There is concern among those opposed to resettlement that these refugees might be so different that they pose a threat to American traditions (Urtzan 137; Koc and Anderson 798). Even individuals who have no prior prejudices toward the refugees are frequently exposed to presentations of Syrian refugees as dangerous and corrupt in American media outlets, and this can lead to the refugees’ dehumanization and rejection by the public (Koc and Anderson 804). In “Amy Foster,” the fear and distrust that leads to callous attitudes toward the stranger who is outside the group norms stand in sharp contrast to the vulnerable psychological state of the individual who is in need of the group.

By making the thoughts and emotions of the newcomer available to the reader, Conrad humanizes the Other, allowing the reader to look past differences and recognize those essential aspects of humanity that transcend local cultures.

Examples of such universal human emotions are the loneliness that is experienced when a person is separated from their native land and culture and the deep gratitude that can be felt when shown kindness. In “Amy Foster,” Yanko feels alienated and completely alone, unable to find almost anything that connects him to his culture and homeland. The depth of his suffering is conveyed by a description of his relationship with three trees that remind him of his home: “He had been detected once, after dusk, with his forehead against the trunk of one of them, sobbing, and talking to himself. They had been like brothers to him at the time, he affirmed. Everything else was strange” (Conrad 340). Like Yanko, Syrian refugees experience alienation and loneliness. As one refugee, Farah, shares: “To be alone and to be a stranger is the hardest. One time when we moved here, I went to the mosque, and I prayed to God that he gives me friends, like my sisters, like my family” (Ugurel Kamisli). A reader may draw a parallel between Farah’s prayer for companionship and Yanko comforting himself against the trunk of a tree. Although Yanko’s rejection by the villagers causes him to feel “pained,” “heartbroken,” and “oppressed” (Conrad 342, 336, 340), his optimistic attitude toward humanity is restored by the kindness and simple charity of Amy Foster (Conrad 336). The magnitude of his gratitude for even a small kindness is amplified by its contrast with the loneliness and rejection Yanko feels in his new community. This is also an emotion that has its parallel in the experience of refugees receiving assistance in the United States. For one director of a refugee resettlement organization, his observation that the Syrian refugees are “truly grateful for our assistance” provides an example of how different the refugees are from the negative way that they are portrayed in the media (Urtzan 140). Recognizing the relatable human emotions of loneliness and gratitude are one way that connections could begin to be formed between a social group and a feared Other.

The tragic ending of Conrad’s story illustrates one more relatable human experience—the profound need to remain connected to one’s cultural traditions. Although Yanko integrates into his host community, he does not completely assimilate—he continues to maintain some customs that are meaningful for him. One tradition that he shared with his family, and hopes to continue with his son, is his religious practice; he continues to pray “as he had heard his father do at the head of all the kneeling family” (Conrad 341). Yanko, who feels estranged in this community, yearns for the comfort of cultural affiliation—having loved ones that he can share his culture with. Toward the end of the story, he does not mind when he is again ejected from a tavern for his strange behavior, because he is joyously looking forward to having a son with whom he can share his language and customs (Conrad 345). It is only after his wife starts to discourage this process of culture sharing that Yanko begins to be deeply depressed (Conrad 345-346), and when she runs away with the child at his time of need, it proves deadly. As the narrator of the story surmises, “his heart must have indeed failed him” (Conrad 348) and Yanko is left “to perish in the supreme disaster of loneliness and despair” (Conrad 349). Syrian refugees must also integrate with the culture in order to thrive in a society that fears and dislikes many of their customs. Dr. Ugurel Kamisli, who works with refugees as they adjust to life in the United States, describes this process as “restructur[ing] their lives and reconstruct[ing] their identities” (Ugurel Kamisli). Currently, studies show that Americans would be more accepting of Syrian refugees if they would completely assimilate and reject their traditional culture (Koc and Anderson 801), or if they were already English-speaking and Christian (Adida). However, readers of “Amy Foster” may recognize that these refugees are likely to share a psychological need to maintain meaningful traditions from their homeland. Zainab, the refugee mentioned previously, associates her well-being with finding a similar cultural community in the United States, explaining that: “One of the things that makes me…feel stable and feel happy… [is] that there is a lot of people that speak my language” (Ugurel Kamisli). Conrad’s story provides an opportunity for Americans to consider that there must be a more humane approach to fulfilling compassionate commitments to refugee resettlement without demanding that those refugees conform completely to American norms and traditions.

Numerous international studies have shown that cultural integration has psychologically healthier outcomes for immigrants than cultural assimilation; therefore, psychologists recommend that host communities encourage maintenance of immigrant traditions and customs (Berry et al., 327). However, as observed in “Amy Foster” and American reactions to Syrian refugees, maintaining different norms or values often induce fear and hostile societal reactions. Although it seems to be an irresolvable dilemma, a possible answer lies in education. Psychology Professor John Berry, who has published extensively in topics of intercultural psychology, recommends that host governments develop programs, including classroom curriculums, that guide the local population to an acceptance and appreciation of culturally diverse citizens (Berry et al., 328). Social psychologists Dr. Yasin Koc and Dr. Joel Anderson, who have researched American social anxiety toward Syrian refugees, suggest that an important step toward reducing fear is to “represent refugees as individuals rather than a homogenous group” (Koc and Anderson 807). A story such as “Amy Foster” could be useful in this context because as the reader emotionally relates to Yanko’s tragedies, this engenders a great deal of empathy for him—empathy that could then be directed toward the circumstances of the refugees. This could ideally be translated into support for cultural integration, allowing the Syrian refugees to have the psychological benefit of maintaining important elements of their cultural heritage.

Classic literature is an essential component of human knowledge and understanding. The element of storytelling appeals to human emotions and presents memorable perspectives and experiences that may be new or challenging.

This widens a reader’s capacity to understand different people and encourages critical as well as empathic evaluations of current events. If Conrad’s story, “Amy Foster,” could purposefully be employed in educational settings in a way that compares the experiences of Yanko and the Syrian refugees, it could be a step toward mitigating prejudice and allowing for successful social integration. The United States is becoming increasingly multicultural; however, there are also indications that many Americans continue to be fearful and antagonistic toward people who maintain traditional customs that appear to be at odds with American culture. Joseph Conrad, himself an immigrant who had to leave his homeland and adjust to a different culture, may provide a way for people to understand and respect each other as fellow humans.

Works Cited

Adida, Claire L. et al. “Americans preferred Syrian Refugees Who are Female, English- Speaking, and Christian on the Eve of Donald Trump’s Election.” PLOS One, vol. 14, no. 10, 10 October 2019. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0222504.

Berry, John W., et al. “Immigrant Youth: Acculturation, Identity, and Adaptation.” Applied Psychology: An International Review, vol. 55, no. 3, July 2006, pp. 303– 332. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1111/j.1464-0597.2006.00256.x.

Conrad, Joseph. “Amy Foster.” Typhoon and Other Tales. 1914. Signet Classic, 1963.

Koc, Yasin, and Joel R. Anderson. “Social Distance toward Syrian Refugees: The Role of Intergroup Anxiety in Facilitating Positive Relations.” Journal of Social Issues, vol. 74, no. 4, 2018, pp. 790-811. DOI: 10.1111/josi.12299.

Ugurel Kamisli, M. “Acculturation Experiences of Syrian Muslim Refugee Women in the United States: Intersectionality of Nationality, Gender, and Refugee Status.” Adult Learning, October 2020, EBSCO host, DOI: 10.1177/1045159520962852.

Utrzan. Damir et al. “A Needs and Readiness Assessment of the United States Refugee Resettlement Program: Focus on Syrian Asylum-Seekers and Refugees.” International Migration, vol. 57, no. 1, 2019, pp. 127-144. DOI: 10.1111/imig.12479.