Fairy Tale Friday: The Ugly Duckling

Andersen’s Fairy Tales

by H. C. Andersen

This was an old Christmas present from my mom that I re-found at the beginning of the year. It’s a lovely old book, probably from a used book store. There’s a handwritten note in it dated to June 1961. And while I have other books with a lot of the same stories, there’s something adorable about this one so I’m going through reading all them. 

The Ugly Duckling (pg. 48-61)

“He did not know what the birds were, or whether they flew, but all the same he was more drawn towards them than he had ever been by any creatures before” (58).

It begins with a mother duck showing her ducklings the world, as far as she knows it. Sometimes a parent only knows what they know, which isn’t always right for their children. Mother duck confirms life is unfair and you can’t always get what you want. She wanted the eel head for herself.

She also introduces the ducklings to the society in the duckyard, especially the duck with alleged Spanish blood. As she says,

” ‘mind you quack properly, and bend your necks to the old duck over there! She is the grandest of them all; she has Spanish blood in her veins and that accounts for her size, and, do you see? she has a red rag round her leg; that is a wonderfully fine thing, and the most extraordinary mark of distinction any duck can have'” (51).

Does the red rag mean anything? Like is it as a sign of what is going to happen to her or what she’s there for, if anything?

That’s so unfair. Just because he looks different does NOT mean he should be whacked! To quote: ” ‘Very likely not, but he is so ungainly and queer,’ said the biter; ‘he must be whacked'” (52). Why are they so hung up on his looks? Why don’t they get to know him and then judge whether he should be made over or should be whacked? (Apparently I disliked that.)

I’m glad the mother defends him. A little. At the beginning.

Additionally, I appreciate that the mother duck points out his positives (he swims beautifully, maybe better than the rest), but she still crouches the rest f her praise in the terminology of explaining his ugliness: he was in too long or he’s a drake and he’ll grow into it.

” ‘he is not handsome, but he is a thorough good creature, and he swims beautifully as any of the others; nay, I think I might venture even to add that I think he will improve as he goes on, or perhaps in time he may grow smaller! He was too long in the egg, and so has not come out with a very good figure.’ And then she patted his neck and stroked him down. ‘Besides e is a drake,’ she said; ‘so it does not matter so much. I believe he will be very strong, and I don’t doubt but he will make his way in the world'” (52).

Re-reading this for editing, I’m struck with whether the mother duck’s positivity is just a means to convince the old duck that the ugly duckling is worth having in the duckyard, and hence allow her and her other ducklings to stay. I liked my first interpretation better.

Is the old duck the head of barnyard and who stays and is welcome? So the mother and her ducklings are allowed to stay in the duckyard.

Well, every duck and hen torment him. The turkey-cock terrorizes him. His siblings want him dead, and say so: ” ‘If only the cat would get hold of you, you hideous object!'” (53).

And his mother wants him to be faraway. Why? Because she can’t stand his ugliness or can’t stand the shame of his ugliness or can’t stand seeing him picked on? When I read it recently in another Andersen collection, I took it as his mother had turned against him, <s>but here I’m not as sure. Her intention doesn’t seem as clear as the others</s>. Never mind: “Even his mother said, ‘I wish to goodness you were miles away'” (53). “Even” implicates that the one duck that should be on his side (and who once was) is no longer his defender. Boo! on that. I should (still) check the translations.

He’s moved into the wild (the Unknown?) and therefore runs across wild ducks who also think he’s ugly. Notice they talk about marriage, a prospect he hasn’t considered (and may not be interested in). It could also signal a stage of maturity when one leaves home. From there, he meets a new fowl: Wild ganders. Who still think he’s ugly. Again there’s talk of marriage.

When a hunting party and their dog shows up, the duckling thanks his ugliness: ” ‘Oh, thank Heaven,’ sighed the duckling, ‘I am so ugly even the dog won’t bite me!'” (54). I think more likely the dog recognizes you haven’t got the scent he’s after.  But it does show how he’s internalized his ridicule and torment.

I can see why this is a popular story. It would definitely resonate with many people. It’s a very Disney story. Wait, has Disney done it? Like as a short? I also think it’s worth looking into to see if the text refers to him as simply the “duckling” or the “ugly duckling”.

After that, he falls into the company of a old woman, a cat, and a hen. Her bad eyesight makes her mistake him for a duck. Seriously, there’s other waterfowl in the world. Also note how each place he moves to is worse than the last. Here he creeps in.

Well, the cat and the hen think they are very fine and wise. They think they know the world, but are probably as limited in their perspective as the mother duck. In contrast, the duckling is open minded: “The duckling thought there might be two opinions on the subject, but the cat would not hear of it” (56)

Their basic ideology boils down to: “Can you do what we can do? If not, keep to yourself” = paraphrase of the hen and cat.

When he tries to express himself to the hen (his love of swimming and diving), she tells him confirm to the society he’s in and dismisses his desires because it is not what she or anyone she considers wise would do. She limits what he could be because she deems him stupid for wanting to do something no one she knows would do. And when he tries to tell her she doesn’t understand, she tells him he’s stupid and should confirm. Geez. Strong social commentary about identity and social ideology and society.

How can every creature be turned off by his ugliness? They can’t all think he’s a duck, can they?

Finally he sees swans and the sight of them CALLS to him. He feels compelled; something stirs inside him.

“They were dazzlingly white with long waving necks; they were swans, and uttering a peculiar cry they spread out their magnificent broad wings and flew away from the cold regions to warmer lands and open seas. They mounted so high, so very high, and the ugly little duckling became strangely uneasy; he circled round and round in the water like a wheel, craning his neck up into the air after them. Then he uttered a shriek so piercing and so strange, that he was quite frightened by it himself. Oh, he could not forget those beautiful birds, those happy birds, and as soon as they were out of he ducked right down to the bottom, and when he came up again he was quite beside himself. He did not know what the birds were, or whether they flew, but all the same he was more drawn towards them than he had ever been by any creatures before” (58).

He’s rescued from a frozen lake by a man who takes him home. The house with the children was the worse of all yet I don’t think anyone meant ill toward him for once. Also, there was no dialogue; no one telling him he was ugly or wrong. But all his preconceived notions taught him by his experiences have made her him leery and fearful of others. Also, you know, I’d be wary of humans and children if I was an animal, especially in an Andersen fairy tale.

He flies to a new place. And with the coming of spring, he has a new beginning.

Ooh, lilacs.

“Before he knew where he was , he found himself in a large garden where apple trees were in full bloom and the air was scented with lilacs, the long branches of which overhung the indented shores of the lake! Oh! the spring freshness was so delicious!” (60).

Now comes the big reveal: he was a swan all along.

His misfortune allows him to appreciate his fortune. It also allows him to understand alternate perspectives and the experiences of discrimination.

The story tells me that “a good heart never becomes proud” (61). Is that true?

He finally has a sense of belonging; he feels happy and accepted and welcomed. If you find where you fit people will like you. Is this the only time he refers to himself as the ugly duckling?

Overall: It was good. It’s a very strong story about discrimination and finding a place to belong. It also can stand for a growing up story and finding your place in the world. It also speaks to learning to accept others and other views, rather than thinking you know best in your limited worldview, and the dangers of forcing everyone to confirm to an accepted social ideology. I suspect some Andersen life influence, considering his looks and upbringing, where he’s a stand in for the duckling.

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