Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces All Creatures Great and Small Analysis
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1211
The area of Yorkshire known as the Dales, where this small-town veterinarian began practicing in the late 1930’s, has achieved the distinction of being known as “Herriot Country.” The popularity of Herriot’s works (heightened by a British Broadcasting Company television series) prompted a flood of correspondence addressed to “Dr. Herriot, Darrowby, England.” Although the names of the writer and the village are pseudonyms, the locals well knew the identity of this transplanted Scot who had brought them so much fame. The mail was faithfully delivered, although the real village is Thirsk, where James Wight continued to practice his trade. Official anonymity was necessary, as British veterinary etiquette did not allow advertising, least of all the sort that would come by virtue of being a best-selling author.
Herriot’s reconstruction of events, almost a generation after their happening, reflects his efforts to make a record of a way of life that was being inexorably effaced by the erosions of a more modern age. Herriot’s tales are therefore a testament to a disappearing culture and its sense of independence and kindliness—as well as its mean-spiritedness.
Herriot also describes the enormous transformations that were occurring in his own profession. The 1930’s were for veterinarians an age of transition between the old home remedies, still revered by many of his clients, and antibiotics and modern surgery. With the advantage of hindsight, Herriot can comment on the differences between the cures of the 1930’s and those discovered later.
These changing times, invariably looked upon by Herriot’s clients with the utmost suspicion, often set the stage for humorous confrontations. Herriot took on the task of re-creating the old myths faithfully, as if in preserving them he was paying tribute to the way of life which gave them birth. The farmers who are his clients seem to have a generations-old cure, steeped in superstition and tradition, for every barnyard ailment. Most maddening for Herriot is the fact that often, following hours of treatment with expensive medications, the healing effect becomes apparent only after the farmer, impatient with the newfangled stuff, dispenses his great-grandfather’s cure-all. Predictably, this success is followed by caustic comments concerning the inexperience of new “vitneries” and annoyance with expensive drugs that are much less effective than the old remedies and are therefore a waste not only of the farmer’s time but also (much more important to the stingy Yorkshire Dalesman) of his money. One of the Dalesmen’s revered myths has to do with “worm i’ th’ tail”: If a cow for any reason refuses to get up, it is blamed on a worm being in that cow’s tail. The cure to the condition is to cut off the cow’s tail to kill the worm, an act which invariably causes the cow to bellow in great pain and jump to her feet to avoid touching the painful stump to the ground. Naturally, it is most difficult to persuade the truculent Dalesman of the true reason for the effect.
What Herriot has in common with his know-it-all clients is their celebration of the work ethic. Herriot has confessed to being a complete workaholic. “I can always forget my troubles by getting in the car and driving through the dales to the farms,” he observed. “Karl Marx said religion is the opium of the people; work is my opiate.” His commitment to his own profession and his respect for the hard work of others constitute one of the book’s underlying themes and one reason for its popular success.
Interestingly enough, Herriot admitted that he had had no really firm basis for wanting to become a veterinarian; he knew only that he “liked dogs and cats and didn’t care much for the idea of an office life.” As an aspiring veterinary student, Herriot had expected to become a small-animal doctor, equipped with a revolutionary laboratory and office. There was a surplus of young veterinarians in Great Britain in the late 1930’s, however, and when he was offered a job as an assistant in the veterinary practice run by one Siegfried Farnon in the Yorkshire Dales, he leaped at the opportunity. He quickly fell in love with the wild, windswept land. Instead of plying his trade in a gleaming but airless city office, he found himself slopping across byres in Wellingtons to treat sick cows and pigs.
One might say that the land of Yorkshire functions as a character in Herriot’s book; indeed, Herriot was largely responsible for the area’s becoming a tourist attraction in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Herriot constantly reminds one that he is never far from some breathtaking vista, even if he does not always have the time to bask in its magnificence. “If only my car had had any brakes,” he complains at one point,I would certainly have enjoyed looking down on Worton village from the high moor. The old stone houses straggling unevenly along the near bank of the river made a pleasant splash of grey on the green floor of the valley and the little gardens with their clipped lawns gave a touch of softness to the bare, rising sweep of the fellside on the other side of the Dale.
Herriot’s delight in his natural surroundings, his proximity to, and preoccupation with, the organic forces of nature, makes the life he describes with such verve eminently attractive. He can acknowledge that being kicked in the ribs by a recalcitrant horse, or being drenched in excrement while examining a nervous cow, or putting a pampered, overweight poodle on a reducing diet represents a strange way of making a living. Yet for him it is the best of possible lives. “I might have been in an office,” he reminds himself, “with the windows tight shut against the petrol fumes and the traffic noise, the desk light shining on the columns of figures, my bowler hat hanging on the wall.”
All Creatures Great and Small mixes the romantic with the realistic; descriptions of the beauty of an unspoiled land are interspersed with graphic accounts of taking care of animals. Herriot describes, with great attention to detail, how he would reach inside a cow’s vagina to rotate an unborn calf, how he extracted the “wolf teeth” from a young horse, how he tried to lance an aural hematoma in an angry sow, how he confronted the painful, often-necessary duty of ending a beast’s life. Yet his profound concern for the preservation of life and the welfare of his patients appeals to his readers’ sense of decency and kindness. Herriot lives up to the ideal of showing respect toward all creatures.
In 1930’s Yorkshire, the assembly-line concept of animal husbandry, with its brutal confinement systems and mechanistic killing devices, was utterly foreign. In Herriot’s world, animals are to be respected rather than simply exploited. His neighbors might keep certain farm animals as pets after they have outlived their usefulness. An elderly woman wonders whether her domestic animals have souls so they might join her in Heaven; Herriot assures her that they do and they will. His nostalgia for the people and animals of Darrowby is all the more poignant because the period he describes, and the life he lived, are gone.