The author of the fairy tale The Ugly Duckling is the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen whose influence on the genre was keen. In his long writing career, Andersen has become most famous for his fairy tales read by children around the world as they have been translated into more than 40 languages. He wrote over 150 stories for children and thus became one of the world's most important writers. Some of his most famous fairy tales are The Little Mermaid, The Snow Queen, The Ugly Duckling, The Pea Princess, The Emperor's New Clothes, and others. Many of his works have remained the inspiration for many animated films, plays, ballets, paintings, and sculptures to this day, thus remaining timeless.
But Andersen's fairy tales have not always been world-famous and recognized. Critics and audiences did not pay too much attention to his fairy tales and thought they were of little value. At first, they were retellings of stories he had heard and were told to him as a child, but as time went on, he began to write them himself. His fairy tales combine legends, fiction, and myth with the real world in the best possible way.
The Ugly Duckling was first published in 1843 becoming one of the most celebrated and popular fairy tales of all time. But what is the meaning behind the story? Before we dive into an extensive analysis we recommend you look into the summary first to get a better understanding of the story.
The twist of the fairy tale could either be inaccurate or accurate - the little duckling is not a duck at all, but a young swan. When Andersen first wrote the story, he planned on calling it "The Young Swan", but soon he decided to keep the mystery and reveal the shocking twist at the very end of the story. At the beginning of the story, the reader presumes that the "ugly duckling" hatches from a swan's egg that mistakenly ended up in the mother duck's nest.
After all, this component of the story brings us to some biographical speculation, consisting of the concept that Andersen was writing a revelation that he had been switched at birth, and that he was the illegitimate son of Prince Christian Frederik, who later grew to become King Christian VIII of Denmark. This is not true, however, with fairy tales, Freudian and biographical interpretations (where the writer of the fairy tale is known) are as inevitable as taxes and death.
That said, Andersen himself used to be abused at school and he later said his school days had been the darkest of his entire life. So, we can speculate that Andersen's own experiences as a boy fed into The Ugly Duckling.
Like his story The Emperor's New Clothes, The Ugly Duckling became a symbol and abbreviation for a rejected outsider whose virtues the world ignores, only to later transform into a successful person.
A story can be read differently as a moral fairy tale about abusing someone because it "doesn't fit" or is not pretty enough, or as a story that celebrates the value of diligence. Not everyone in the world will necessarily welcome you warmly, but there is a group of friends and family for everyone. At least, that is one way to analyze a story, but the meaning of the story is actually a little more complex than we think.
Andersen's fairy tales are unique in the genre. They don't shy away from picturing the hard realities of life: that not all people will like you (The Ugly Duckling), that the one you love won't necessarily return your love, and there's nothing you can do about it (The Little Mermaid), and that often manipulative and evil people get away with their deeds and avoid punishment (Snow Queen). While The Ugly Duckling has a happier ending than Andersen's fairy tales often have, the story is not really about acceptance.
It is not about accepting the main character that most animals do not love him, but about how the world accepts someone who's "different". If nothing else, the story is an acknowledgment of the lack of acceptance that is an unavoidable element of human society.
Alternatively, the happy ending of the story is the result of a coincidence and, by no means makes the story an unusual fairy tale. It is the equivalent of a story about an orphan girl or a boy who discovers she/he is really a princess or a prince, or a kitchen boy who discovers he is the heir to the throne.
However, the story reminds us that Andersen's work is melancholic and that we need to have in mind the misery that lies in the daily lives of many people. If the ugly duckling had grown into a deformed and ugly duck, a happy ending wouldn't have been possible.
This is essentially a story of violation and abuse. Stories in which the character carries an "alien" identity and remains hidden are pretty rare as they are contrary to the expectations of the audience and not likely readable.
The character is different from his tribe/family thus feeling completely alone. Eventually, he finds others who accept him, but for a short period of time only to find his kind in the end, someone who will accept him for who he really is. Realizing that the little duckling is not alone in the world, makes him possible to accept himself and can be happy.
This basic theme of loneliness in society until acceptance is old, and not surprising. Separated from his family or society, a man will not survive long if he doesn't find someone like him.
In addition, especially in children's literature, stories very often begin with the main character who feels lonely, similar to how we feel when we go to preschool or school, and move to a new neighborhood or city. The character of the child also often starts from a state of boredom and loneliness.
Although the main character, the ugly duckling, is an animal, this is obviously a story about people. Here, Hans Andersen uses animal symbolism to tell a covert human story. It combines animal transformation and the moral of the story in a unique way. The duckling just seems like a strange outcast because no one knows what he really is. Even his mother, who struggled to defend him, finally gives up, wishing he was never born.
The pathos of this eccentric and lovely fairy tale is entirely new to the form. We can see Aesop's elements such as a proud turkey, an old duck with a red cloth, and a house, where the cat is the master. But ditching the duckling and his efforts to do what his nature needs is much more than comedy. Expelled, frozen, victimized, half-hungry, the ugly duckling finally meets the swans when his life becomes happier after he expected death due to its ugliness.
Allegedly, when Hans Christian Andersen was asked if he would write an autobiography, he replied that The Ugly Duckling did the job.
It is thought that Hans Andersen wrote about himself and everyone interprets the story in their own way because the story has an echo in everyone. The happy climax is delayed and feels like it will never happen. Unlike Cinderella who has the same action and we know from the beginning that she's favorite and will probably have a happy ending, here we don't know what will happen to the ugly duckling. The long-suffering of a lonely duck is strange and unexpected. Morality is in appearance and reality.
The ugly duckling also gets its happy ending. The poor duck was mocked and humiliated for being so ugly, but he finally turned into a beautiful swan. When we take a closer look, what does this story say? It is interpreted as follows: after many troubles, patience and perseverance will be rewarded. Nevertheless, the ugly duckling turned into a swan just because it hatched from a swan's egg. If he was a real duck, he would have grown into a duck. What does Andersen mean by his story? Some biographers believe that Andersen was not the son of a washerwoman and a shoemaker, but the illegitimate child of a nobleman, perhaps even a Danish king. There is no direct evidence for this, but the clues are strong. Perhaps this story is the author's way of saying, "I achieved fame and fortune only because I am actually of noble birth."
Another option is that Andersen himself thought that he was of noble origin, even if that is not true. In this case, Andersen suffered from an addiction, a psychotic state, whose traces we see in this fairy tale. This is an example of a hypothetical biographical approach. It might not be wise to apply it as a critical method, but it shows the possibility of using literary works to illustrate the author's life. Yet, this approach has little to do with the study of literature.
When it comes to the setting used in a story, The Ugly Duckling is a secular story that takes place on the river and the riverbank. A group of birds is an animal society that stands as an allegory for human society.
The mother duck is most responsible for rejecting the ugly duckling from society as she was the one who had the obligation to protect him. She models her revulsion on him and the genetic offspring she gathers. So does every single animal that meets the ugly duckling, even though he met someone who wanted to help him find love despite being ugly: geese. Geese are more like allies than enemies. The ugly duckling never wanted to be associated with ugly birds. Deep down, he knew he was better than that.
The fairy tale was written in a romantic direction. The protagonist is lonely and opposed to the whole world. No one understands and values him. The looks of white swans seem foreign and impossible. However, at the end of the story, the ugly duckling not only turned into a white swan but also connected with his family who accepted him. Finally, people see the beauty of swans and recognize it.
The genre of the story is a fairy tale. Nevertheless, it doesn't look like a fairy tale about animals, but like a philosophical parable. All the heroes of the story are allegories, but if in the fairy tale about animals the hero is an allegory of quality (fox - slick, rabbit - cowardliness), then in The Ugly Duckling the heroes represent a certain human type, a certain destiny.
The main topic of the story is the search for the meaning of life and one's place in society. The main idea behind the story is that the truth will be revealed after all. An ugly duckling will inevitably turn into a white swan if he avoids many dangers in his life's journey. There is no ugliness in the world. Happiness and acceptance are the normal states of living beings.
The problems of the story are philosophical and social. By using irony and even sarcasm, the author describes a society that cannot see beyond its nose. At the same time, the philosophical thought of the fairy tale is deep: it is better to die than to suffer and live by the laws of the locals.
The fairy tale starts with a summary landscape and a sentence: "It was lovely summer weather in the country, and the golden corn, the green oats, and the haystacks piled up in the meadows looked beautiful." This is the point of view of the author and represents happiness and harmony.
On the way to that harmony, the ugly duckling goes through many trials. His birthplace is a thicket of burdock. As befits a romantic hero, the ugly duckling brings trouble to the immediate environment even before birth, because his egg is ugly big and the incubation lasts longer. A mother reconciles a duck with an ugly son just because he is not a turkey, because he swims beautifully.
The first duck test was "socialization" because ducklings needed to understand the laws of society. And, from the narrator's point of view, these laws are insane - two families are fighting for a head that goes to a cat and a duck with a red piece on its leg is most important. Andersen subverts money and power, showing their worthlessness.
The ugly duckling was attacked because it is "big and weird". He was rejected by society, his family, and even his mother. So the duckling left for the swamp.
The third test was the strangers. They didn't laugh at the duckling. They simply didn't care about him. Their only concern was that the duckling does not intermarry with them. And the wild geese are even ready to accept the duckling in their society: "you are so ugly, that we like you very well".
The fourth test was dangerous. Even the dog (duckling's enemy) didn't attack him as it was so ugly. Here the duckling learns to enjoy his position, he thanks God for his ugliness. There is a final humility in his rejected position.
The fifth test is no longer connected with the appearance, but with the activity of the duckling. Finding himself in a hut with a half-blind old woman, a chicken, and a cat, the duckling became sure of his worthlessness. He doesn't know how to do two useful things: to lay eggs like a chicken or to arch his back and purr like a cat. An old woman is an image of blind fate that doesn't see that a duckling, by its nature, cannot bear eggs. And the fact that duckling is inherent is called by the chicken dope and whimsy. So, once again, the duckling leaves.
The next step is meeting the ideal - the royal birds, but the duckling doesn't associate with them. So, the winter and his happiness are preceded by a crucial decision: to be killed by swans or to bear the hatred of animals and winter cold.
Seeing its reflection in the water, the duckling was able to accept the truth about who he was and become happy. After accepting himself, he was accepted by both swans and people who recognized him as the most beautiful animal.
The first characteristic that was given to the duckling was the one from his mother: "It is very large and not at all like the others." If you think about it, excellence and individuality from birth are inherited, only the mother duck doesn't know how to appreciate it.
The self-characteristics of the ugly duckling are connected to the perspective of the mother duck: ugly, a laughing stock for the whole bird's yard.
For the time being, the mother duck protects her child, because she finds positive qualities in him, but she quickly gets tired of it and curses him. Chicken and cat allow the duckling to choose if he's gonna lay eggs or arch his back.
The duckling doesn't meet either the external or internal requirements of society, so when he sees swans, he doesn't envy them. Society has achieved its goal: the duckling has lost his dream and goal.
As a true romantic hero, he decides to approach his ideal even at the cost of his life. But, having decided, he finds himself loved and happy.
The pictures of the tale are ironic and allegorical. The irony was manifested in the author's assessments and dialogues. This is a parody of the society that can be read only between the lines. It's a criticism of society. For example, a mother duck is proud of her ducklings because they look like their father. They should behave in a certain way only because their dad and mom do it. That is, the flaws of the parents are repeated in children, and this is considered the norm.
Common truths come from the birds because stupidity is a social norm. There are real winged expressions in the fairy tale and the expression of "ugly duckling" has become a phraseological meaning of a hidden person, usually a child with unexpected talent.
Genre: fairy tale
Setting: the story starts during summertime, but all seasons were included. As for a place the ugly duckling was born on a farm, but he visited a house surrounded by lakes and meadows, a swamp, and a lake.
Point of view and Narrator: third-person with an omniscient narration
Tone and Mood: in the beginning, the tone and mood were depressed and later changed to a happier mood.
Style: ironic, cynical
Protagonist and Antagonist: the protagonist is the little duckling while the antagonists are the other animals representing society.
Major Conflict: other animals don't like the little duckling as he's ugly
Raising action: the ugly duckling was threatened by an old woman he will be eaten if he doesn't lay an egg
Climax: the ugly duckling was saved from the winter by a farmer
Ending: the ugly duckling grows into a beautiful swan
Symbols and Metaphors
The ugly duckling - a metaphor for Andersen's life when he was rejected and mocked as a young boy. When a literary critic Georg Brandes asked Andersen if he was considering writing his autobiography, Andersen said it had already been written referring to The Ugly Duckling. It is a reflection of his childhood and growing up which he considered the darkest period of his life. Writing helped him express his originality and allowed him to be recognized as an author. He was an outcast himself turning into a beautiful swan after being recognized as a children's stories author.
Hatching - from birth, like the little duckling, we have to start from scratch. Deprived of all "conscious" memories of where we came from, what we are here to do, and the whole sense of creating and spreading we feel completely alone. And not only that, but in encounters with society at one (or more) point of life we perceive ourselves as ugly; there is something wrong with our presence, we do not fit.
We don't follow the crowd and we are not a copy of everyone else. Ironically, we all seem to be experiencing this.
Swan - despite hints of doubt about his true nature, as the duckling grows and becomes more and more exhausted in his misery. Hopelessness due to various avoided attempts to fit in and establish a relationship with society, the duckling falls into a pit of despair and comes to terms with being numb.
Suddenly, one day - when it seems that the last pain for life has finally left his body and when the last feather of fluffy gray down has fallen, the duckling hears a sound. Raising his head, he saw a beautiful creature like no other before; long neck, white feather, a personification of grace. Swimming closer, he not only sees the birds up close but catches a glimpse of his own reflection, which he has ignored for so long that he has forgotten he has it, to discover that he looks exactly the same as those before him.
As they begin to fly into the sky, the duckling - now a swan - spreads its wings and joins them, overwhelmed again with the realization that it has been beautiful all along, and he can be at peace with himself once and for all.
Animals - animals in this story represent a human society that rejects someone or something that doesn't fit in, follows the rules, or is ugly. This basic theme of loneliness in society until acceptance is old, and not surprising. Separated from his family and society, a man will not survive long if he doesn't find someone like him, same as the ugly duckling was already almost dead until he found out that he's a beautiful swan and that he fits somewhere. This is a parody of the society that can be read only between the lines and the story is a criticism of society.