Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 887
All Creatures Great and Small was James Herriot’s first book to be published in the United States. In it, the mature Herriot tells of his youthful self, when he graduated from veterinary school and began working in a rural veterinary practice. The narrator, like the reader, is able to laugh at the naïveté of Herriot, as well as at the people who surround him, including his employer, Siegfried Farnon, and his employer’s brother, Tristan Farnon. Simultaneously, the reader can recognize the close bond that develops between Herriot, Siegfried, and Tristan, the tremendous respect Herriot has for Siegfried, and the friendship he feels for Tristan.
At the beginning of the book, Herriot is lying on a cobblestone floor, covered with muck, shirtless, and in a cold, drafty barn, with snow sometimes blowing on him, as he tries successfully to deliver a calf. The first chapter ends shortly after he mistakenly thinks that a farmer’s question “How about a drink?” is directed at him, rather than at the cow that gave birth. Thus, he immediately introduces the hardships of a rural veterinarian’s life, as well as the kind of comic character his early misunderstandings of the rural Yorkshire folk made him. He simultaneously reveals his awe and delight at the miracle of birth, even when it occurs in the most uncomfortable of circumstances. The book ends with his account of his honeymoon, with his wife assisting him as he does tuberculin tests of cattle. The entire book illustrates the kind of joy Herriot eventually finds in his work in the rough Yorkshire Dales.
All Creatures Great and Small illustrates how living a simple life can provide an antidote for the complex problems of modern civilization. The narrator repeatedly reminds the reader that he is writing about a time of change, a time when the draft horse is disappearing from the farms and modern technology is replacing it. He also reminds the reader that the use of traditional medicines, some of which were ineffective, is ending. In addition, rural veterinary work is gradually shifting from large farm animals to small animals. On a larger scale, he laments how radio, television, and the automobile are making people similar everywhere. He even bemoans the disappearance of the older words and expressions of the Yorkshire countryside.
In spite of his conservatism, Herriot uses the new drugs as they become available and follows the new surgical procedures, most of which he reads about in magazines. However, he recognizes that there is no need to entirely abandon the old techniques. To Herriot’s amazement, Siegfried successfully uses the traditional technique of bleeding to heal a case of laminitis, an inflammation in a horse’s hoof, for a horse belonging to Mr. Myatt and his family, whom Herriot calls “gipsies.”
The book shows Herriot, the man from the city, gradually overcoming the distance between himself and the people who dwell in the Dales, eventually becoming accepted and even loved by many of the rural folk among whom he works. He also learns to recognize that beneath their often rough exteriors are what he feels are the best qualities of the Dalesmen, “the indestructibility, the tough philosophy, the unthinking generosity and hospitality.” He interacts with people of all social strata, from the very rich and titled to the very poor, and he treats them all with dignity. He often discovers that he prefers the poor farmers who live high in the Dales and barely manage to make a living from their small, rocky farms to some of the richer people in the lowlands. For example, he realizes that he prefers the company of the poor Alton family to the rich Taverner family. In his anecdotes, he treats the joy and wonder of life, along with the hardship and death that are always present in the harsh landscape he comes to love so much.
By ending the book with his marriage, Herriot shows life triumphing over death and hope triumphing over pessimism. Some critics theorize that post-World War II America was more optimistic than post-World War II England, in part because of the devastating effects that bombing had on English cities. The optimism of All Creatures Great and Small, these critics feel, helped make the book popular in the United States, while the same optimism kept the two books from which it was drawn from being popular in England. In addition, the book’s nostalgia for simpler past times and its romantic atmosphere, along with a strong advertising campaign, helped make and keep it popular in the United States. It has been translated into more than a dozen languages.
The marriage at the book’s end represents a new beginning in Herriot’s life, as well as what appears to be a decision to continue with that life rather than try to become the kind of small-animal veterinarian he originally intended to be. He paints himself as a comic figure throughout his wooing and winning of his wife, Helen Alderson. Herriot thus shows that love can triumph in spite of human failings. He and Helen spend their honeymoon testing cattle for tuberculosis and enjoy what they are doing, demonstrating the kind of close bond they have with the animals and people of the Dales, as well as their close bond with each other.