By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Hans Christian Andersen’s influence on the fairy tale genre was profound. Although ‘The Snow Queen’, ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, ‘The Little Mermaid’, and ‘The Ugly Duckling’ have the ring of timeless fairy stories, they were all original tales written by the Danish storyteller in the mid-nineteenth century.
First published in 1843, ‘The Ugly Duckling’ is one of the most celebrated of all of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales. But what does this story mean?
‘The Ugly Duckling’: plot summary
Before we offer some words of analysis, it might be worth summarising the plot of ‘The Ugly Duckling’.
‘The Ugly Duckling’, in summary, tells of a mother duck, whose eggs are hatching. The last of her baby birds to hatch is a larger bird than the other ducklings, and the other birds – and the other animals around on the farm – consider it to be ‘ugly’. They mock and vilify him, and he leaves his mother and siblings behind.
He encounters some wild geese (technically, ganders as they are male birds, strutting about), and narrowly avoids being killed when hunters turn up with guns and dogs and shoot the geese.
The ugly duckling keeps wandering, until he arrives at the home of an old woman. Here, once again, he isn’t there long before he is taunted and abused by the woman’s cat and hen: the hen dismisses the ugly duckling’s longing to glide upon the water, saying that she (the hen) is cleverer than him and it’s a stupid idea. Once more, the ugly duckling leaves and continues on his way.
The ugly duckling comes upon a flock of swans, and longs to join them, but he is unable to fly. He is delighted and excited, but he cannot join them, for he is too young and cannot fly. The duckling endures a harsh winter in a cave, and when spring arrives, he sees a flock of swans gliding on the lake.
The miserable duckling has given up on life by this point, and decides to throw himself into the path of the large swans and be killed, so he cannot be abused and rejected for being ‘ugly’ any more. But – surprise, surprise – the swans don’t devour him but instead welcome him with open arms (or wings) as one of their own.
And when the ugly duckling catches sight of his own reflection in the water, he realises he is not an ugly duckling any more, but a beautiful, elegant swan. Having realised his beauty and found his family, this majestic swan takes flight with the flock of swans, happy at last.
That’s a brief summary of the story of the ugly duckling, but if you want to read the tale in full, you can find a good translation here.
‘The Ugly Duckling’: analysis
Of course, the twist in the story is that its title turns out to be erroneous and inaccurate: the ‘duckling’ is not a duck at all, but a cygnet, i.e. a young swan. When Andersen first came up with the story in 1842, he planned on calling it ‘The Young Swans’, but decided that the surprise twist should be kept back until the end of the story.
We are to presume (though Andersen’s story doesn’t state as much) that the ‘ugly duckling’ hatched from a swan’s egg that had accidentally ended up in the mother duck’s nest.
Indeed, this aspect of the tale has led to some biographical speculation, including the (rather fanciful) idea that Andersen was drawing on the recent revelation that he had been a changeling as a baby, and that he was actually the illegitimate son of Prince Christian Frederik, who later became King Christian VIII of Denmark.
This is unlikely to be true, but then, with fairy tales, Freudian and biographical interpretations (where the author of the fairy tale is known) are as inevitable as death and taxes.
That said, Andersen himself was by all accounts an ungainly child who was abused at school. He later said his schooldays were the darkest of his entire life, and we can speculate (though it is only speculation) that Andersen’s own experiences as a boy fed into ‘The Ugly Duckling’.
‘The Ugly Duckling’ has, like Andersen’s invention of the ‘emperor’s new clothes’, entered everyday speech and common use. The tale has become a symbol and a shorthand for the spurned outsider whose virtues are ignored by the world, only for them to transform into a successful person at a later date.
The short tale can be read, variously, as a moral fable about the short-sightedness of dismissing someone for their perceived lack of conventional ‘beauty’ or for ‘not fitting in’, or as a story celebrating the value of perseverance. Not everyone in the world will necessarily welcome you with open arms, but there’s a ‘family’ or group for everyone.
At least, that’s one way to analyse the tale – but is its meaning actually a little more complex than its straightforward plot, and seemingly straightforward moral, suggest?
Well, perhaps there’s a little more to it than that. Andersen’s fairy stories are remarkable in the genre for not shying away from the harsh realities of life: people aren’t going to like you (‘The Ugly Duckling’), the one you love isn’t necessarily going to love you back and there’s nothing you can do about it (‘The Little Mermaid’), and often evil or manipulative people get away with it and avoid punishment (‘The Snow Queen’).
And although ‘The Ugly Duckling’ ends happily, and with a far more conventional happy ending than Andersen’s fairy tales often have, it is actually not about acceptance.
Or rather, it is about the protagonist’s acceptance that most people don’t like him, rather than the world’s acceptance of him. If anything, the story is an acknowledgment of the tribalism and lack of acceptance that is an inevitable feature of human society, rather than a resolution of this depressing feature.
Or, to put it another way, the happy resolution to the story is a result of sheer fluke – that the ‘ugly duckling’ was, essentially, a changeling. This doesn’t make ‘The Ugly Duckling’ an unusual fairy tale by any means: it’s the equivalent of the poor orphan girl discovering she’s really the princess, or the kitchen boy discovering he’s heir to the throne.
But it does remind us that Andersen’s work is shot through with a melancholic streak which keeps in mind the misery the lies just under many people’s daily lives. If that title had not been a misnomer and the ugly duckling had just grown up to be an ugly and misshapen duck, no happy ending would have been possible.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.