The Alchemy of Failure: Combining Facts and Fictions in Chaucer's "The Canon's Yeoman's Tale".

Citation metadata

Author: Kathleen Burt
Date: Spring 2021
From: South Atlantic Review(Vol. 86, Issue 1)
Publisher: South Atlantic Modern Language Association
Document Type: Article
Length: 7,489 words

Document controls

Main content

Article Preview :

The Canon's Yeoman is unique in The Canterbury Tales in that his audience has only his word and his conversation with other pilgrims by which to judge him. The Canon's Yeoman must try to deal with the prejudices, fears, and uncertainties about himself, his alchemic vocation, and his current situation, and he tries to explain and interpret them using rhetoric, a more established though equally questionable practice in terms of its honesty and use. The Canon's Yeoman fails as a rhetorician as he does not successfully convince anyone of his or his master's identity, he fails as the teller of a moral tale and a comic tale, and he fails as an alchemist both literally and meta-textually. He fails so thoroughly that failure becomes a deliberate theme Chaucer uses this character and his tale to explore. What causes much of the failure the Yeoman experiences is the level of reality he brings to his introduction and his tale. Without the narrative balance of fiction and reality that the other pilgrims achieve by being viewed through the lens of the narrator, "Geoffrey," the Canon's Yeoman is entirely too literal thanks to his scientific focus. His failure is so consistent that it draws attention not only to the character and tale but also to the literary strategies at work in setting him so far apart from the other pilgrims. What Chaucer achieves is not only an exploration and experiment in failure, but also an illustration of the necessity and value of the fictional mode provided by himself in the form of pilgrim Geoffrey.

The unreliability or complexity of the pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales are well- established features of many of the characters and their tales, including Chaucer himself as "Geoffrey" and as authorial presence, (1) but the Canon's Yeoman and his tale are rarely discussed in this context. The Canon's Yeoman and tale present much differently in terms of self-fashioning fiction not only because they lack presence in the "General Prologue" but also because the teller fails to fashion and fictionalize both himself and his tale. Much as several of the other pilgrims create self-narrative and fictionalize their tales, (2) the Canon's Yeoman attempts to present a narrative for himself and his master, and his failure negatively impacts his ability to fictionalize his tale. The failures also result from the Canon's Yeoman deliberately drawing attention to his attempts. Once the Host helps establish that the Canon and Yeoman are not what they are attempting to self-present, the Yeoman unsuccessfully tries to tell a fictionalized tale after focusing on de-fictionalizing himself and his trade. As the Yeoman tries to tell his "tale proper," he runs into several problems concerning self-presentation (3): he struggles to transition from the factual recitation of alchemical knowledge to the fictional story, he struggles to incorporate his own narrative presence, and he struggles with his conclusion.

In contrast to other pilgrims, such as Geoffrey, who use similar techniques successfully, the Canon's Yeoman illustrates what a self-fashioning narrative in...

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A655503289