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This film follows a young woman named Gelsomina. She is sold by her mother to the Gypsy Zampano after her sister, Rosa who had previously been sold to him dies. Gelsomina will take her place and work with Zampano who performs for crowds as a strongman. He passes a hat around for tips, after an iron chain is wrapped around his upper body and he breaks it by simply expanding his chest for the amusement of the onlookers.

Zampano is a tough and mean man but that doesn't affect Gelsomina's funny nature. For the act she is taught how to dance, act as a clown, and play the trumpet and snare drum. Zampano is very harsh on Gelsomina even though she is eager to please him.

Gelsomina gets fed up with his treatment of her and runs away from him into town. While wandering she comes across a performance by a high wire artist. She is found by Zampano there, who then takes her back. After joining a traveling circus, they meet Il Matto the high wire artist who works there as well. There is tension between Il Matto and Zampano which leads to them being taken to jail.

Once out of jail, Il Matto talks to Gelsomina and tells her that she is worth something and has a purpose in life. He speaks of how she can do things other than serve Zampano but she should'nt leave him. When Zampano later gets out of jail she asks if he would want to get married but he ignores her.

The circus fires all of them but a little further in the future Zampano comes across Il Matto on a deserted road. Zampona punches him a few times and begins to walk away when surprisingly Il Matto falls down and dies. He then puts the body out of sight and gets rid of the car.

Gelsomina is extremely distressed by the murder. After over a week she still can't deal with it. Zampano who was happy to get away with the killing becomes annoyed with her and secretly leaves while she is sleeping.

About five year later, he hears a woman playing a tune that Gelsomina had used to play. From her he discovers that her father had found Gelsomina on the beach and taken her in, but she died. After learning this, Zampano drinks excessively and goes to beach where he cries.