"The Ugly Duckling" (Danish: "Den grimme Ælling") is a short story for children by the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. It was first published in 1843 in the fourth volume of Andersen's fairy tales.
The protagonist of the story is a bird that hatches from a large egg in a duck's nest. Due to his strange appearance, he is not accepted by the other ducks or by other animals on the farm and suffers constant verbal and physical abuse. The unhappy bird leaves home. He fails to find happiness anywhere else but briefly becomes excited when he sees some swans flying overhead, feeling them to be the most beautiful birds he has ever seen. After suffering a miserable winter, in the spring, the Ugly Duyckling finds that he has grown up to be a swan himself.
Hans Christian Andersen considered the story to be autobiographical. As a child, he was mocked for his big nose and large feet, as well as for his beautiful singing voice and love of theater. There were also rumors that the Andersen family were of aristocratic origin and that Hans Christian Andersen was the illegitimate son of King Christian VIII of Denmark. It is possible that Andersen saw himself as "a swan born in a duck's nest", that is to say, somebody of noble or royal blood who was born in humble surroundings.
Adaptations of the story include two Walt Disney Silly Symphonies, a 1931 version in black and white and a 1939 version in Technicolor which won an Academy Award. In 1914, Sergei Profokiev wrote a composition based on "The Ugly Duckling" for voice and piano. He adapted it for voice and orchestra in 1934 and it was adapted as an opera by Lev Konov in 1996. The Frank Loesser song "The Ugly Duckling", composed for the 1952 movie Hans Christian Andersen and sung by Danny Kaye in the title role, remains popular.
The story begins with a mother duck impatiently waiting for her eggs to hatch. One egg, which is larger than the rest, remains unhatched for several days after ducklings have emerged from the others. Another duck tells the mother bird that she thinks the egg is really a turkey's egg. When the egg does hatch, the mother duck thinks that the strange looking bird that comes out of it might be a turkey. However, she realizes that he cannot be a turkey because he is able to swim. She accepts him as her own child and presents him to the other animals on the farm.
The other ducks on the farm take an immediate dislike to him, as do the other birds. He suffers continous verbal and physical abuse from the other birds on a daily basis. The girl who feeds the ducks kicks him. His brothers and sisters also call him ugly and taunt him and even his mother says that she wishes he had never been born.
Unable to put up with life on the farm any longer, the Ugly Duckling flies away. He lands on a moor where some wild ducks and goslings live. Although the wild ducks and goslings also find him ugly, they do not physically abuse him and tolerate his presence. When some hunters kill all the other birds that live on the moor, the Ugly Duckling leaves again.
During a storm, the Ugly Duckling takes shelter in a cottage where an old woman lives with her cat and her hen. The old woman allows him to stay. Not knowing that the Ugly Duckling is a male, she hopes to get some duck's eggs in addition to the hen's eggs that she already has. The old woman's cat and hen consider themselves to be superior to the Ugly Duckling, since he can neither lay eggs nor purr, and cannot understand his desire to swim. The Ugly Duckling leaves the cottage at the first available opportunity.
The Ugly Duckling finds some water on which he can swim. The other animals that live there avoid him. As winter approaches, he sees some migrating swans fly above him. He is strangely excited by the sight of the birds, which he believes are the most beautiful that he has ever seen.
The water gradually freezes and the Ugly Duckling finds himself trapped in ice. A man rescues the duckling and takes him home. However, the Ugly Duckling becomes frightened by the man's children and tries to escape. As he does so, he knocks over some food and drink, causing the man's wife to become extremely angry. The Ugly Duckling manages to escape from the man's cottage and spends a miserable winter outside.
In spring, he finds that he has large strong wings and flies away again. He arrives at a beautiful garden where he sees some more swans. Tired of suffering, he approaches the swans, expecting that the beautiful birds will be enraged by an ugly bird like him daring to come towards them and will kill him. However, he notices his reflection in the water and sees that he has grown up to be a swan too. Some children come to feed the swans. They see that there is a new one amongst them and comment that the new swan is the most beautiful of all.
- Sound files of public domain audiobooks of "The Ugly Duckling" from LIbriVox:
- Text of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Ugly Duckling" in Danish and English on Wikisource.
- 'The Ugly Duckling" on Sur la Lune Fairy Tales.com.