The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen (English translation by H.P. Paull, illustrations by Ripple Digital Publishing Corp.) is a brilliantly written fable. I recently re-read it and found that, in its own way, the tale repudiates collectivism and egalitarianism – the idea that everyone should be regarded as equal in everything – with a clever inversion.
Without revealing the story’s twist, the duckling is born ugly, which he can’t help. Other ducks ridicule, even assault, him just for being different. His own siblings spurn him. At first, his mother defends him until, seeking others’ approval, she finally says she wishes he had never been born.
After more rejection and abuse, he flees his family for another group’s domain, where he is told that he will be tolerated as long as he doesn’t marry into the collective. He moves on to a group of wild ducks, facing the threat of the huntsman. With shots firing, and birds falling around him, the Ugly Duckling chooses to think; he hides, waits and bides his time to leave when it’s safe. When he does depart, he is exceedingly cautious. He takes nothing for granted. It’s the first hint that he might be better than everyone else. This is made explicit in the next part of the story when he is castigated by a hen for thinking he’s better than others as he finds himself among a trio of misfits. “Do you consider yourself more clever than the cat, or the old woman?” asks the hen. “Don’t imagine such nonsense, child, and thank your good fortune that you have been received here.”
The Ugly Duckling refuses to be humble. In encounter after encounter, he senses that he might be special. He sadly moves on after each episode, seeking happiness, and the lonely path he takes exacts a heavy toll. That he sees himself as he truly is only when he makes himself ready to give up climaxes the moral of the story, which is a kind of fable about authentic self-esteem. Adversity makes you stronger is certainly part of Andersen’s point but The Ugly Duckling is not, as is sometimes claimed, merely about being different. It is also a tale about discovering and becoming aware of one’s potential. The notion that one should accept himself as he is, recognizing limitations and strengths and accepting that life is hard, and pain is temporary, is obviously relevant to those who are different. But this story is also, and not as obviously, meaningful to the one who is better than others yet unaware of the truth.