Childrens Books

“The Ugly Duckling” – A book review

I somehow never had the opportunity to read this classic tale in its original format as written by Hans Christian Andersen. I’ve read condensed stories based on his book and never really liked the story other than the fact that it provided an interesting concept to debate about.

The plot of the story looks like this – our hero was born very ugly among three other beautiful ducklings. And from there, it takes off and escalates into a tale of such explicit violence that it took me completely by surprise. All because the duckling is fat and ugly and not soft and cuddly! If it had been more in the sense of the duckling being heckled because it looked different and bigger it might have made for interesting reading but being singled out by saying you look ugly is prejudice and bigotry. These were always my thoughts whenever I encountered the phrase “ugly duckling.”

Last night, I was (un)lucky to come across a free version of this book on my Kindle. I thought this would be a great story for my 7 and 5 year olds. I was wrong ! The story contained so much violence that halfway through the book, I had to stop reading it aloud to the children. I continued mesmerized that a children’s fairy tale could contain so much intimidation, pain and extreme torture. Similar to the fate of the poor ugly ducklings, the book is plagued with extreme intolerance of people who are labeled ugly because they lack the qualifications to be conventionally beautiful.

Wherever the little duckling goes, misfortune follows him. He gets bitten, cut, cursed, abused, physically abused, kicked out and I could go on but I don’t want to scare off my little readers so I’ll end by saying this little duckling survives through it all and gets depressed and falls into self-pity and self-loathing. Yes, I’m also surprised that this is a children’s book by 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 the Danish poet and author Hans Christian Andersen (1805 – 1875). History tells history from a simple little bird born to a barnyard that suffers abuse from others around him until, much to his delight (and surprise to others), he grows into a beautiful swan , the most beautiful bird of all. The story is loved around the world as a tale of personal transformation for the better.(1) “The Ugly Duckling” was first published on November 11, 1843 along with three other Andersen’s tales of Copenhagen, Denmark, which received critical acclaim. The tale has been adapted into various media, including opera, musical comedy, and animated film. The tale is entirely the invention of Andersen. ‘Andersen and owes nothing to fairy or folklore.

I am blown away to read that it is. Perhaps Andersen could have incorporated something into the character of the duckling that allowed him to go on the journey of transformation. Instead, he cries and mopes until he emerges as a swan. How would he have survived if he hadn’t been a swan and was exactly what he was. Very daunting concept indeed!

How this ugly story of a little one who ends up in the wrong place through no fault of his own and who is content to follow the course of things wanting to die every day could have garnered so many positive reviews is beyond me.

(Spolier alert!) The question I would have asked Andersen would be, what if he hadn’t turned into a swan at the end? Would that mean he would have been doomed forever and simply kill himself or accept whatever abuse the world was throwing at him. I would have liked to see more cum from the little duckling. I know he had some wit in him when he goes against the authority of the hen and the cat and argues with them about having fun going out instead of being cooped up in the house. I have to give it to Andersen, he manages to elicit a few laughs with his macho writing. One such example is when the hen responds to the duckling about her fanciful ideas of bathing in open water:

“What an absurd idea! You have nothing else to do, so you have crazy ideas. If you could purr or lay eggs, they would pass!”

I’m tempted to rest my case here, but there are other gems like these that need to be cited.

Andersen’s prejudice against the fairer sex shines through when another mother duckling says of her supposedly bad appearance – “He’s a duck, and therefore not that important. I think he’ll grow up strong and able to take care of himself!” Wow! It’s nice to hear that it would have been the end of all this poor guy if he had been a woman. I guess he should consider himself lucky.

Another good one is when the duckling lands among the wild ducks, hoping they’ll accept him as one of their own and that’s what one of them has to tell him – “You’re extremely ugly, but it won’t matter if you don’t want to marry a member of our family!” One sentence carries so much prejudice against so many things and that pretty much sums up the whole tone of this book.

I can’t finish without quoting the end of the book. (Spoiler alert again)

After discovering that he had gone from being an ugly duckling to being the most beautiful swan you’ve ever seen, our hero “felt blessed to have suffered heartbreak and trouble because it allowed him to enjoy so much best of all the pleasures and happiness that surrounded him”. How noble he is!

What a boring, cringe-worthy book. Read it, but please not with children. It’s definitely not for them.

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