The Ugly Duckling Metaphor

The Ugly Duckling Metaphor

Photo by Aksel Fristrup on Unsplash

The Ugly Duckling Metaphor

By Nicholas Chow
17 March 2021

The Ugly Duckling was written by Hans Christian Andersen in 1843.
For those who grew up reading fairy tales, Hans Christian Andersen needs no introduction.
He has written some of the most famous fairy tales in history such as The Little Mermaid, The Emperor’s New Clothes, Thumbelina, The Princess and the Pea, The Snow Queen and The Ugly Duckling.  Andersen published his first book of fairy tales in 1835.
His fairy tales are among the most frequently translated works in literary history.


The Story
The story begins with a mother duck’s egg hatch. One of the ducklings is perceived to be an ugly little creature.  The mother duck thought her little ugly duckling looked more like a turkey and wished he had never been born.  The duckling was verbally and physically abused and rejected by all the other birds and animals on the farm, including his own siblings.

“They are afraid of me because I am ugly” he said sadly and decided to run away.  Unfortunately misfortune continues to befall him and his encounters with other birds and people are just as horrible.  He spends a miserable winter alone in the outdoors, mostly hiding in a cave on the lake that partly freezes over.

When spring arrives, a flock of swans descends on the lake. The duckling unable to endure a life of solitude and hardship anymore, threw himself at the flock of swans, deciding that to be killed by such beautiful birds is better than to live a life of ugliness and misery. But when he looked at his reflection in the water, he realized that he is not a duckling, but a swan all this time. The flock of swans accepted him and as he spreads his beautiful wings and take flight with his new family, he cried joyfully from his heart, “I never dreamed of such happiness as this, while I was an ugly duckling”.

Ugly Duckling Meaning
Andersen took one year to write The Ugly Duckling.  When asked by literary critic, Georg Brandes if he had considered writing his autobiography, Andersen said it had already been written and was called The Ugly Duckling.  The story was a reflection of his impoverished childhood and bitter growing up years including attending school which he had considered to be the darkest period of his life.  Writing helped him express his individuality and enable the swan in him to blossom as an acclaimed author.  What made Andersen’s Ugly Duckling and other fairy tales so captivating is his identification with the impoverished and outcast.

In this fairy tale autobiography, Andersen is a swan mistaken for an ugly duckling from birth to adulthood.  The Ugly Duckling is a metaphor of Andersen’s own life of being rejected, ill-treated, misunderstood, and his eventual success as an author.  It is also a metaphor of how it feels to be different and how cruel people can be towards those whom they perceive to be different.

Individuality is about being different.  It comprises of all the qualities (beliefs, values, goals, rights, desires…) which make a person an individual, separate from other people.  When a person loses a sense of value in his/her own individuality, it can lead to low self-esteem and inhibit self-actualization.

Andersen concluded his fairy tale metaphor with an encouraging message that even though a person may grow up feeling worthless or not good enough, they can still blossom like a beautiful swan.  Therefore it is important for us to embrace and accept our own differences with courage.  It is also equally important for us to appreciate and accept differences in others in an inclusive, non-judgmental and supportive manner.


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