All Creatures Great and Small

by James Herriot

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 479

The narrator, James Herriot, is a favorite among publishers, critics, and readers. He is modest, sincere, slow to anger, never pretentious, and often writes of himself as ridiculous and laughable. But foremost, he is likable for his love and appreciation of the Dales — whether in repeating dialect, describing a man's work-swollen hands or an animal's sickly eye, celebrating how he stops the car to sit on the grass and watch the country, or briefly touching on the look of Helen, the daughter of the country, whom he eventually marries.

Siegfried, the vet who hires Herriot during the Depression, is an eccentric, intelligent, glib lady-killer who can be absurdly angry, absurdly patient, or even vicious. He never notices his inconsistencies, is always confident, yet is often forgetful and inattentive. Herriot calls him the epitome of the Englishman and shows that he is ultimately a man of principle.

Siegfried is drawn from reality via the notes in Herriot's journal. His many personality traits do not simplify into a type. Instead, each time he appears in one of the book's short chapters, only a few of his features are mentioned or dramatized. The result is that Siegfried seems to be a different type in each appearance, and these subtypes reinforce and sometimes contradict each other to accumulate into the full character.

Much the same is true of Tristan, Siegfried's younger brother. He is similarly inconsistent, intelligent, and smooth, yet manages to flunk his veterinary exam and continue placidly indulging himself in Woodbine cigarettes, various liquors, idleness, lady chasing, partying, and (with keen presence of mind) his perverse sibling rivalry with Siegfried, with its practical jokes and one-upmanship.

In contrast to these three presumably civilized outsiders to the Dales, Helen Alderson is a beautiful natural resource. Having helped manage her father's farm over the years since her mother died, she is strong, intelligent and humorous, affable but not so glib as to rescue James from his romantic gaffes. Most of all, like Herriot the young vet, she is very able to love. Herriot the narrator, after thirty years with Helen, is like a devout godparent of the whole Dales. The triumph of this love in James's and Helen's wedding at the end is a true cause of celebration.

The minor characters — Dales farmers, townspeople, rich folk, other vets — appear as types. They have few features and characteristic shapes. But they are drawn from Herriot's notes, not cliches, and from his knowledge of the constant points of their characters over thirty years; each bears the stamp of the Dales and years of coping. The setting of the Dales, new to the reading public, with its routines and trials and customs, proves capable of revealing character in new ways, similar to the ways it has shaped each Dales individual. Each minor character, although similar to humans elsewhere, could only be a native of the Dales.

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