A Tale of Artistry and Unfairness: Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Ugly Duckling”

I may tell you unpleasant truths, but that is a proof of my friendship.

Most of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales deal with some sort of magic—witches, or fairies, or mermaids, or tiny girls who can fit inside a flower and set off for adventures. But a few of his stories contain realistic settings—including one of his most famous and influential tales, “The Ugly Duckling,” originally published in 1843.

“The Ugly Duckling” starts off on a rather unusual theme for a fairy tale—a voiced resentment about motherhood and its duties and restraints. Most women in fairy tales long for children, to the point of voicing spells or rhymes requesting them, or even visiting fairies or witches to ask for help in conceiving a child. “The Ugly Duckling” starts off on a completely different note, with a mother duck sitting on eggs, tired of waiting for the eggs to hatch. After all, the weather is beautiful, the farm where she lives is beautiful, and plenty of other ducks and even the occasional stork are wandering around—but not bothering to come by and visit since they can swim instead. The mother duck is bored, and lonely.

It incidentally also happens to be a nice comment on the social restrictions faced by some disabled people in Andersen’s time and our own, who for mobility reasons have to wait for people to come to them instead of heading out to see people. But in this case, the focus is on motherhood, and the reality that motherhood can put restrictions on women—that some women, or at least ducks, might end up resenting. This is not a duck overly interested in little ducks, or having little ducks, and who is resentful of little ducks right from the beginning—striking a cynical and non-magical note. We also learn that although the duck can swim and fly, and is aware that the world is much larger than her little duck retreat, she has never even been to the end of the garden, or the neighboring parson’s field.

This is followed up by an offhand comment from the duck, just a few sentences later, noting that she’s basically a single mom—the father hasn’t come by to see the little ducks, even though they strongly resemble him. This may be Andersen’s correct observations on natural duck behavior. I have no idea—I know nothing about the parental habits of real ducks. Or it may be a note about the human fathers he had known who also left mothers alone with large flocks of brooding children who knew little about the wider world.

Anyway. The last duckling to hatch is from the largest egg, visibly different from the rest, and not just because it doesn’t hatch until a few days later than the rest. The mother figures she might as well continue to sit on it and help it hatch, given how long she’s already been on it. The last duckling is large and ugly, but he can swim—proof positive that whatever else he is, he isn’t a turkey. (The bit where the mother decides that she will push him in the water to see if he’s a turkey vaguely reminded me of a certain Monty Python scene about witchcraft.)

Armed with this knowledge, the mother duck takes her little ducklings into “high society”—that is, the other animals on the farm, with the exception of the cat. (Andersen does not say that this is because the cat is in fact not just high society, but royalty—ask any cat—but that’s clearly what is meant.) The introduction goes poorly for the last, oversized, ugly duckling: the chief duck doesn’t exactly want to get rid of him, but she does think he can be improved. The rest of the poultry wants him out, to the point of physically abusing him. His mother initially defends him, but once the physical attacks get started, she says she wishes he’d never been done.

Not surprisingly, the little ugly duckling flies off.

He briefly teams up with some geese, who think he might be able to find a nice goose and settle down with her despite his looks, which is all very nice until they are shot down from the sky. After this distinctly traumatizing experience, the duckling finds himself in a poverty stricken cottage inhabited by an old woman, a hen and a cat. Both the hen and the cat are clearly superior to the duckling, and explain just why they are superior (the cat, I feel, has a point). They are also appalled by his longing to swim in the water, pointing out that none of them want to swim in water, and they are clearly superior people, so why should the duckling? All he has to do is find something useful to do—like lay eggs—and then he won’t need to swim. The duckling has the sense to waddle away at this point, finding a pond, and watching swans fly overhead—something that fills him with a strange sensation. He then gets frozen in the pond, is briefly rescued by a still more terrible family—and in the spring, finds that he has transformed into a swan.

And he has no idea how to deal with this.

Art by Vilhelm Pedersen (1843)

“The Ugly Duckling” has generally been read as something rather close to Andersen’s autobiography, largely because Andersen himself classified the tale that way. By the time he wrote the tale at age 39, Andersen had enjoyed a thorough and thoroughly hated education, and, more enjoyably, published several short stories, poems and well received novels—though the fairy tales that would eventually win him wide acclaim were still barely known. None the less, these achievements allowed Andersen, who came from a deeply impoverished family, to spend the summer staying in two distinctly aristocratic homes, despite his background.

Like the duckling, he had achieved something he could hardly even dream about in his earliest years: the duckling never even sees swans (or, as I suppose we can call them, aristocrats, writers and poets) until he leaves home—much the way Andersen knew of aristocrats only through the fairy tales told to him by elderly women and professional, celebrated writers and poets not at all. But as this story reveals, his success had not come easily, or comfortably. It’s not just that the duckling never fits in anywhere and even feels uncomfortable once he discovers that he’s really a swan. It’s that his first attempt to leave and fit in is greeted with actual violence, gunshots and death: his first glimpse of swans flying over ahead leaves the duckling half frozen and almost dead, dependent on the kindness of strangers to survive.

And, of course, the duckling frequently finds himself talking to animals who are convinced they know much more than they really do. This was something Andersen had presumably encountered on a frequent basis, given how many times he mocks it in his tales—along with characters who claim to know all they need to know about the world despite seeing almost nothing of it.

And for all the tale’s insistence that the duckling was a swan all along, and thus, that Andersen had been a writer/poet all along, regardless of where he had been born, the story also contains a fairly strong hint that Andersen became a writer/poet at least in part because, like the duckling, he had been unable to fit in with the place and people where he was born. The tale details harassment, both verbal and physical, which Andersen himself experienced as a child, along with doubts that he could succeed—and the assurances, from some, that he could, if he just followed some well meant advice and excellent examples. And it details the way that sometimes just ignoring that advice—which Andersen was known to do—might end up working out just well.

These days, “The Ugly Duckling” is often read as a reassurance to those who struggled to fit in or found themselves harassed as kids, or as an argument that beauty is more a matter of perception than anything else, and that any ugly duckling can end up becoming a swan. (I would just like to add here that although we usually don’t use the phrase “beautiful duck” ducks can be beautiful too. You don’t have to turn into something completely different than your entire family in order to be beautiful, kids! But moving on.) And of course the Cinderella part of the tale also resonates—although I caution against reading this as too much of a Cinderella tale. Cinderella, after all, earns her happy ending through both physical labor and developing social skills—dancing, conversation, good taste. The ugly duckling just grows up, never working or developing any of the skills (except swimming) that multiple people in the tale urge him to focus on.

Which is perhaps why I read the story now more as a protest against the need to do something useful. The characters here who try to do something useful generally find themselves trapped in small environments. Their socialization is limited at best, as are their options. And they are mocked. Sure, some of them—particularly the hen and the cat—seem happy enough, but they live in a poor cottage. Meanwhile, the duckling, who spends much of the story just swimming around in some water, ends up getting to enter a castle and fed cake and bread.

Which also makes this, in some respects, a story about unfairness—as several characters point out, the duckling, after all, has done very little to earn his good fortune and luck. Not just in his later transformation, but also in moments where he finds shelter in a storm (and is not eaten by cat), or when he manages to evade a number of flying bullets—and therefore is not picked up by dogs specifically looking for dead birds. He becomes a swan because he was always a swan, born that way, with the good luck of finding himself in a duck nest after becoming separated from his mother.

Making this, in a sense, almost an anti-Cinderella tale, and one that, for all of its visible connections to aspects of Andersen’s own life, and Andersen’s own view of himself as an ugly duckling, perhaps not all that much like Andersen’s life after all. Unlike his ugly duckling, Andersen did spend years in school, and focused hard on his writing. His success astonished him, but it was not unearned. Then again, he lived in the real world; his ugly duckling lived in a fairy tale.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida.

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