Literature / The Ugly Duckling

"The Ugly Duckling" is a literary Fairy Tale written by Danish poet Hans Christian Andersen. It has been adapted by Disney twice and the Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev wrote a score for a ballet of the story in 1914. It is one of the few Hans Christian Andersen stories where nobody dies.

A swan egg winds up in a duck nest. When it hatches, it is clear that this baby "duck" is different from all his siblings and gets teased and picked on. The "ugly duckling" goes off on his own and ekes out a miserable existence, meeting misfortune everywhere he goes.

When the spring comes, he sees a bevy of swans on a pond and is drawn to their beauty, feeling compelled to approach them even though he fears they will abuse or even kill him for his ugliness. To his amazement, they receive him as one of their own. The "duckling" catches sight of his own reflection and sees that he too is a swan.

There is also a 1997 animated movie based on The Ugly Duckling but with its own original plot.

Not to be confused with The Ugly Barnacle.

"The Ugly Duckling" includes examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: The duckling's adoptive mother—she half-heartedly defends him from bullies at best, ignores him at worst and her last moment of screentime consists of the duckling overhearing her stating that she "wishes he was miles away".
  • All Is Well That Ends Well
  • An Aesop: Usually presumed to be about self-image or bullying or something. Another could be "beauty is in the eye of the beholder", which makes sense as cygnets are actually quite adorable...they just don't make very good ducklings.
  • Author Appeal: Andersen was gangly, unattractive as a child and was bullied when young. The whole "becoming a beautiful swan" thing was probably wish fulfillment on his own part.
  • Author Avatar: The ugly duckling is said to based on Hans Christian Andersen himself.
  • Beautiful All Along: The "ugly duckling" is actually a beautiful swan.
  • Cats Are Mean: In the original story, the ugly duckling, after being taken in by a kind old woman, is promptly bullied by her cat. Subverted in that said cat was also accompanied by a chicken, so it's really Both Cats and Domestic Birds Are Awful People.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Probably one of the most notable examples. The poor duckling goes through so much torture throughout the years. When the swans find him, he's finally accepted and has a truly happy life.
  • Feathered Fiend: All the birds aside from the title character, a few geese and the swans at the end are mean-spirited, being the main factors in the duckling's suffering.
  • Interspecies Adoption: He is adopted first as a duck before finding out that he's actually a swan. Though it's implied that this wasn't intentional and that instead his egg just happened to find its way into a duck's nest.
  • Karma Houdini: Practically everyone who bullied or abused the duckling gets away with it in the end.
  • Kids Are Cruel: The Ugly Duckling's brothers and sisters, who say things such as "We hope the cat gets you!".
  • Never Accepted in His Hometown: Only once he leaves does the Ugly Duckling find acceptance.
  • No Antagonist: Like quite a few of Andersen's works, there is no clear-cut "villain" in the story. Instead, the conflict comes from the duckling's struggle to be accepted.
  • Royal Blood: Hans Christian Andersen believed he was actually the illegitimate son of Christian Frederick, the Crown Prince of Denmark. The ugly duckling's acceptance by the swan-bevy was symbolic of Andersen's desire to be accepted by the royal family.
  • The Runt at the End: The title character.
  • Throw the Dog a Bone: For all the story's emotional intensity of the cygnet feeling rejected in the Disney version, he only has to endure it for a few minutes before a mother swan takes him in. In the original story, the poor duckling suffered a lot, but an old woman took pity on him and showed him love. And then her other pets got jealous...