Sad story of a waif, Gelsomina, who is sold by her mother to Zampano for 10,000 lire and a few kilos of food. Zampano is a traveling showman who exhibits feats of strength by breaking a chain wrapped around his chest. He performs in village squares and then passes the hat for whatever the normally small crowd is prepared to give. He teaches Gelsomina a drum roll as part of his introduction. He doesn't treat her well and when she tries to run away, he beats her. They eventually join a small traveling circus where they meet a tight-rope walker who convinces Gelsomina to question her choices.