I somehow never had the opportunity to read this classic tale in its original format written by Hans Christian Andersen. I have read condensed stories based on his book and I never quite cared for the story other than the fact that it provided an interesting concept one could debate about.
The plot of the story goes something like this – our hero is born very ugly amidst three other beautiful ducklings. And from there it takes off and degenerates into a tale of such explicit violence that it caught me completely by surprise. All because the duckling is big and ugly and not soft and cuddly! If it had been more on the lines of the duckling being heckled because it looked different and bigger, then it might have made for an interesting read, but being singled out saying you look ugly smacks of prejudice and bigotry. These were always my thoughts whenever I ran across the phrase of ‘ugly duckling’.
Last night I had the (mis)fortune of chancing upon a free version of this book on my Kindle. I thought this would be a great bed time story for my kids aged 7 and 5. Boy was I wrong! The story had so much violence in it, half way through the book I had to stop reading it aloud to the kids. I continued mesmerized that a children’s fairy tale could have so much bullying, suffering and extreme torture incorporated into it. Similar to the poor ugly ducklings fate, the book is plagued by extreme intolerance towards people who are labeled ugly because they do not possess the requisites of being conventionally beautiful.
Everywhere the little duckling goes, misfortune follows him. He gets bit, cut, cursed, abused, physically manhandled, kicked out and I could go on, but would not want to scare away my little readers and so will end it with saying that this little duckling survives through it all and gets depressed and falls into self pity and self loathing. Yes, I am surprised too that this is supposed to be a children’s book from a famous author.
Wikipedia has to say this about this literary work: The Ugly Duckling” (Danish: Den grimme ælling) is a literary fairy tale by Danish poet and author Hans Christian Andersen (1805 – 1875). The story tells of a homely little bird born in a barnyard who suffers abuse from the others around him until, much to his delight (and to the surprise of others), he matures into a beautiful swan, the most beautiful bird of all. The story is beloved around the world as a tale about personal transformation for the better. “The Ugly Duckling” was first published 11 November 1843 with three other tales by Andersen in Copenhagen, Denmark to great critical acclaim. The tale has been adapted to various media including opera, musical, and animated film. The tale is completely Andersen’s invention and owes no debt to fairy or folk lore.”
I am blown away reading that this is the case. Maybe Andersen could have incorporated something into the duckling character that enabled him to make the journey of transformation. Instead he just cries and mopes till he emerges as a swan. How would he have survived had he not been a swan and was just what he was. Very discouraging concept indeed!
How this ugly tale of a little one who finds himself in the wrong place without any fault of his whatsoever and just goes along with the flow of things willing himself to die every single day could have gathered so much positive reviews is beyond me.
(Spolier alert!) The question I would have asked Andersen would be, what if it had not turned into a swan at the end? Would that mean he would have been doomed forever and just either killed himself or went along with the abuse the world was hurling at him. I would have liked to see more spunk from the little duckling. I know he had spirit in him when he goes against the authority of the Hen and the Cat and argues with them about how delightful it is to get out instead of being cooped up in the house. I have to grant it to Andersen, he manages to elicit some chuckles out with his male chauvinist writing. One such example is when the Hen answers back to the duckling about his fancy ideas of taking a swim in the open water:
“What an absurd idea! You have nothing else to do, therefore you have foolish fancies. If you could purr or lay eggs, they would pass away!”
I am tempted to rest my case here, but there are some other gems like these that need to be quoted.
Andersen’s prejudice towards the fairer sex shine through when another duckling mother says of his supposed bad looks – “It is a drake, and therefore not of so much consequence. I think he will grow up strong, and able to take care of himself!” Wow! That’s nice to hear that it would have been the end all of the poor guy had he been a lady. Guess he should count himself lucky.
Another good one is when the duckling lands amidst wild ducks, hoping they will accept him as one of their own and this is what one of them has to say to him – “You are exceedingly ugly, but that will not matter if you do no want to marry one of our family!” One sentence carries so much bias against so many things and that pretty much sums up the entire tone of this book.
I can’t end without quoting from the ending of the book. (Spoiler alert again)
After discovering that he has gone from being an ugly duckling to the most beautiful swan you ever saw, our hero “felt glad at having suffered sorrow and trouble, because it enabled him to enjoy so much better all the pleasure and happiness around him”. How noble of him!
What a tiresome, cringe-worthy book. Read it, but please not with the kids. It’s definitely not for them.