All Creatures Great and Small

by James Herriot

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 554

In All Creatures Great and Small, James Herriot, whose real name is James Alfred Wight, describes his first years of practice as a veterinarian in the Yorkshire region of England in the 1930’s. The work is composed of sketches that have some continuity but that are not arranged in strictly chronological order. Herriot begins with a compellingly detailed scene of a calf being born, and descriptions of such incidents from his practice make up much of the book. Animals become characters with roles that vary from the humorous to the tragic. He tells of puzzling and interesting cases, and he relates his mistakes and failures in treating cases as readily as he relates his successes. Herriot’s accounts convey the practice of a veterinarian in the 1930’s with accuracy. He presents cases which demonstrate the amount of luck that often combined with his medical training to produce triumphs, and he indicates the fine line between spectacular success and dismal failure. All Creatures Great and Small also serves to document advances in technology and knowledge in an age when many important discoveries were being made in the areas of both animal and human medicine. The excitement and frustrations of practicing veterinary medicine in an age of transition are quite evident. Sometimes Herriot is able to save an animal with a new drug or technique, and sometimes he loses an animal that could have been saved with a drug not yet discovered. Herriot balances the reality of his life as a veterinarian with the expectations of both himself and others.

In All Creatures Great and Small, Herriot remembers his student days, especially in the context of his relationship with Tristan Farnon, who is a student and the brother of Herriot’s employer, Siegfried Farnon. Herriot also recounts his first meeting with his employer and his anxieties about getting and keeping a job in economic hard times. These memories are interesting in their own right and provide a good balance to the accounts of experiences in veterinary practice.

The book also provides portraits of the wide variety of people Herriot meets in his practice, and the work is almost as much a biography of Siegfried and Tristan Farnon as it is the memoirs of James Herriot. Herriot punctuates All Creatures Great and Small with descriptions of clients whose personalities stand out and who become memorable characters. A good example of such a character is Mrs. Pumphrey, whose Pekingese dog Tricki Woo is one of Herriot’s regular patients. Through vivid descriptions, Herriot conveys a sense of the infinite variety of life, both animal and human, that he encounters on a daily basis.

Herriot includes honest and intimate accounts of personal experiences in addition to episodes from his practice. He tells of his nervousness about dating and of the mishaps of his courtship of Helen Alderson, whom he eventually marries. He recounts feelings of inadequacy on the personal and on the professional level, but he is also very genuine in expressing his love of his work.

All Creatures Great and Small contains vivid, almost photographic descriptions of the Yorkshire countryside. The high craggy fells, the peaceful green fields filled with sheep and cattle, and the charm of the village of Darrowby emerge with great clarity. His descriptions add depth and variety to the narrative style of the work.

Structural Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 522

Fame came suddenly and unexpectedly to James Wight, who adopted the pseudonym James Herriot. It also came late; All Creatures Great and Small was published when he was in his mid-fifties. Wight had always wanted to write about experiences gleaned from his veterinary practice—to make an effort to fix, at least for himself, the character of his neighbors and the beauty of the land in which he had spent his professional life and which he had come to love intensely—but he never seemed to be able to get started. Finally, after his silver wedding anniversary, to show his wife that he meant business, he got started, writing his stories either before the television set at night or during small blocks of time between daytime calls.

In its format, the book reflects the manner in which it was written: a series of short episodes, many complete in themselves, devoid of any continuing plot line save that of the ongoing experiences of a dedicated professional on his rounds. If his chopped-up means of composition deprived Herriot of the opportunity to build a systematic, well-integrated narrative, it gave him the opportunity to return with freshness and new insight to his work, to infuse it with greater spontaneity.

Herriot confessed that the nervous frustration of constant interruption helped his style. He had begun with sentences worthy of an essay by Thomas Macaulay; eventually, however, he came to eschew most adjectives and developed a simple, proletarian prose that one might use in telling a tale in a country pub. Although Herriot delighted in the success of his literary efforts, he downplayed the result. “Nothing important has ever happened to me,” he commented; “my life is merely the framework for a series of animal incidents.”

These incidents he presents randomly, in fifty-seven short, mostly self-contained chapters which could easily be excerpted for separate publication, as has often been done. All Creatures Great and Small covers roughly a two-year period, beginning with Herriot’s arrival in Darrowby to apply for a scarce job as assistant to the local resident veterinarian, Siegfried Farnon. A loose chronology is maintained, but there is little indication of the passage of time. Development flows from Herriot’s growing experience as a veterinarian and increased understanding of people: his ability to master the practicalities of his craft, his success in adjusting to a situation for which his formal schooling in Glasgow had little prepared him, his adjustment to the particular style and customs of the Yorkshire Dalesmen.

Herriot fleshes out this account with details from his personal life, principally his relations with his erratic and often-contradictory boss, Farnon, and his courtship of Helen, the daughter of a local farmer. Their love story provides the book with a certain low level of suspense, not that the outcome is ever in doubt. The book ends happily. James is wed and accepted as a full partner in the veterinary practice. A few hardhearted types might dismiss such a joyous book as sentimental flummery, but Herriot’s buoyant conviction that he is living in the best of all possible worlds becomes irresistible to most of his readers.

Literary Techniques

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Many of Herriot's techniques may have evolved while his observations germinated in his mind during the thirty years between writing his diaries and writing his books. As happens in autobiography, the narrator is sixty odd years old while he relates events that took place when he was about thirty. The reader sees the young man in light of the elder he has become. The young man is made more likable by being blended with the narrator's thirty additional years of awareness. This older narrator writes lovingly of seemingly superficial events that provide a glimpse of deeper themes while relating a simple story.

Each chapter is a separable anecdote, a short narrative complete in itself, usually featuring one new character and one incident of humor or pathos. A typical chapter shows a comic aspect of Herriot's coping with a problem involving animals and farmers. The chapter is an immediate, clear glimpse of particular elements of the whole lifestyle. Herriot mixes his informal narrative with local dialect and veterinary jargon, drawing authentic detail from the Dales and his science, touching the picturesque images with humor and nostalgic sentiment. The morality of events is rarely far away: How should people treat animals and each other? How should people face triumph and tragedy? Herriot briefly describes animals, illnesses, and people, or steps back to admire the land while the anecdote's small plot carries the reader along. He often relates past to present, usually in terms of the progress of veterinary medicine, leaving the reader with a sense of the Dales' atmosphere in the late 1930s without the distracting comparison to modern appearances. By means of careful selection, he depicts situations in relation to clear general observations, without oversimplifying or overcomplicating the situation. The main weakness of this technique is that the reader starts and stops uncomfortably often between anecdotes, as the most important events are left too much in the background to hold his continuing attention. Eventually, these chapters accumulate into a sympathetic, nostalgic image of life in the subculture of the Dales, as Herriot uses literary devices as a vet would use his diagnostic and remediary tools: the simpler and surer, the better.

Social Concerns

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As in his later books, Herriot writes in All Creatures Great and Small of his own experiences in the Yorkshire village of Darrowby while recounting anecdotes about his, Siegfried's, and Tristan's veterinary practice. As a city man come to the country, Herriot clearly believes that he has seen the good life, and he dedicates much of his book to vividly recounting experiences that justify his view. The Darrowby characters' distinctiveness and moral worth arise from their constant contact with the animals and lands, the demanding life of the Dales' often inhospitable land and weather, and the virtues and family life these difficulties inspire. This life without the complications, indirectness, and abstract processes of urban living seems to leave people more "real" and more representative of universal, elemental, and human values.

Literary Precedents

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All Creatures Great and Small uses many devices from both fiction and nonfiction. The complexity of the older narrator recalling his youth is reflected in most autobiographies and in the Marlow stories of Joseph Conrad (Lord Jim [1900], Heart of Darkness [1902], The Secret Sharer [1912]). The encounter between the city man and the country people is a crux of nineteenth-century American Southwest humor, although the American city man's attitude and motive are much different from Herriot's. The English view that such differing cultures create differences in human nature was pioneered by Sir Walter Scott in the novel Waverly (1814). George Eliot portrays nineteenth-century rural England with more measured calmness and less variety of mood in Adam Bede (1859) and Silas Marner (1861).

The pastoral tradition of poetry, which pleased city dwellers of the Renaissance, provides quite a contrast with Herriot's Dales, which please modern suburbanites. Pastoral shepherds and maidens were a relief from the filth and corruption of cities then; their fantastic, idealized rural images brought an emotional clarity. Herriot's real Darrowby, with its diseases, pain, and dirt, may reorient suburbanites whose securer life has removed some of the discipline the hard life can bring.


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The English television serial, often rerun on the Public Broadcasting System, carries over the spirit of the four books with attractive lightness without sacrificing depth. The humor is more accessible, Siegfried is less vicious, and the relationship between the brothers is more comfortable.

All Creatures Great and Small is the title of a feature-length film based on Herriot's work, but it is not a straight adaptation of that book. Heriot, played by Christopher Timothy, has returned home to practice after having served in World War II. Although he has been away for years, the bucolic life is as bucolic as ever, and provides a setting for his poignant animal stories taken from his several books. This 1986 film, directed by Terence Dudley, also stars Robert Hardy and Peter Davison.


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Brower, M. “Long a Success as ’James Herriot,’ Yorkshire Vet Jim Wight Says ’All Things Must Come to an End,’” in People Weekly. XXIII (March 18, 1985), pp. 91-92.

Del Balso, Suzanne. “Wise, Wonderful World of the Real James Herriot,” in Good Housekeeping. CLXXXVIII (March, 1979), pp. 148-149.

Freilicher, L. “Story Behind Book: All Creatures Great and Small,” in Publishers Weekly. CCIII (January 8, 1973), p. 53.

Green, Timothy. “Best-Selling Vet Practices As Usual,” in Smithsonian. V (November, 1974), pp. 90-97.

Herriot, James. Interview by Arturo F. Gonzalez, Jr., in Saturday Review. XII (May/June, 1986), pp. 56-59.

Kanfer, Stefan. “The Marcus Welby of the Barnyard,” in Time. CXVII (June 29, 1981), pp. 74-78.

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