A mother duck's eggs hatch, but the biggest egg takes longer than all the others. A nosy neighbor opines that the egg looks like a turkey egg. When the egg finally hatches, Mother Duck is relieved to see that her newest son swims - he must not be a turkey - but as ducklings go, he's not very good looking.
The unnamed ugly duckling lives an unpleasant life in the "duckyard" of the farm on which his family lives. With the notable exception of his mother, he is not only disparaged for his looks, he is often bullied and brutalized. (More children's books about bullying.) In today's language, his self-image and self-esteem suffers.
Away from the farm, he finds himself in the wild. While he isn't brutalized, he remains an outsider to the wild ducks, who warn him "do not marry into our family."
The wild geese treat him better, inviting him into their world, but just as his hopes rise he and the geese are set upon by hunters, and only he survives.
He seeks refuge in an old woman's hut, but the woman's pets - a cat and a chicken - make life unpleasant for him. So he heads back out into the wide, wild world and finds himself alone on the brink of winter. The cold weather nearly kills him, but as spring arrives, he finds himself feeling stronger and flies to a beautiful place with a collection of regal swans.
The ugly duckling has by now given up on life. He intends to place himself among the swans and then expects them to simply kill him. Instead, they recognize him as one of their own. Looking at his own reflection in the water, he sees that he is! In fact, the little children who visit the garden think him the most beautiful swan of all.
The Ugly Duckling - Notable:
Author Andersen initially considered the title, The Young Swans, but then discarded it in favor of The Ugly Duckling. He felt the other title ruined the surprise of discovering who the ugly duckling turned out to be.
Unlike many of Hans Christian Andersen's tales, this one is not adapted from earlier storytellers. It is entirely Andersen's own invention. In fact, Andersen said that The Ugly Duckling was the story of his own life.
The ducklings' father is not part of the picture. Mother Duck describes him as a "rogue."
Note that the ugly duckling eventually finds the "people" he belongs with. This story might be a comfort to a child who has trouble fitting in.
Sadly (to me at least), Andersen does not treat us to a homecoming of the grown duckling (now a swan) with his birth mother.
Some might say that the ugly duckling doesn't do anything to merit his happy outcome, and that the story is all about appearances. To them I answer, "He sure suffered unfairly enough, for long enough, to make me happy for him!" I suspect that's why the story is still a classic over a century and a half past its publication.
The Ugly Duckling - Magical:
Anthropomorphized ducks who not only speak; they're taught manners! All the other animals in the tale speak as well.
I'll leave it up to the reader to decide whether a swan born to a duck would have been considered magical in Hans Christian Andersen's day, or just something that seemed conceivable in a world that may not have yet accepted Darwin.
From 'Riverside Literature Series': 1891, by Houghton, Mifflin & Co.
Some clarifications added by the webmaster.
I--THE UGLY DUCKLING IS BORN
It was glorious in the country. It was summer; the cornfields were yellow, the oats were green, the hay had been put up in stacks in the green meadows; and the stork went about on his long red legs, and chattered Egyptian, for this was the language he had learned from his mother. All around the fields and meadows were great woods, and in the midst of these woods deep lakes. Yes, it was right glorious in the country.
In the midst of the sunshine there lay an old farm, with deep canals about it; and from the wall down to the water grew great burdocks (weedy herbs), so high that little children could stand upright under the tallest of them. It was just as wild there as in the deepest wood, and here sat a Duck upon her nest. She had to hatch her ducklings, but she was almost tired out before the little ones came; and she seldom had visitors. The other ducks liked better to swim about in the canals than to run up to sit under a burdock and gabble with her.
At last one egg-shell after another burst open. "Pip! pip!" each cried, and in all the eggs there were little things that stuck out their heads.
"Quack! quack!" said the Duck, and they all came quacking out as fast as they could, looking all around them under the green leaves; and the mother let them look as much as they liked, for green is good for the eye.
"How wide the world is!" said all the young ones; for they certainly had much more room now than when they were inside the eggs.
"Do you think this is all the world?" said the mother. "That stretches far across the other side of the garden, quite into the parson's field; but I have never been there yet. I hope you are all together," and she stood up. "No, I have not all. The largest egg still lies there. How long is that to last? I am really tired of it." And so she sat down again.
"Well, how goes it?" asked an old Duck who had come to pay her a visit.
"It lasts a long time with this one egg," said the Duck who sat there. "It will not open. Now, only look at the others! They are the prettiest little ducks I ever saw. They are all like their father: the rogue, he never comes to see me."
"Let me see the egg which will not burst," said the old Duck. "You may be sure it is a turkey's egg. I was once cheated in that way, and had much care and trouble with the young ones, for they are afraid of the water. Must I say it to you? I could not make them go in. I quacked, and I clacked, but it was no use. Let me see the egg. Yes, that's a turkey's egg. Let it lie there while you teach the other children to swim."
"I think I will sit on it a little longer," said the Duck. "I've sat so long now that I can sit a few days more."
"Just as you please," said the old Duck; and she went away.
At last the great egg burst. "Pip! pip!" said the little one, and crept forth. He was so big and ugly. The Duck looked at him.
"It's a very large Duckling," said she. "None of the others looks like that: it really must be a turkey chick! Well, we shall soon find out. Into the water shall he go, even if I have to push him in."
II--HOW THE UGLY DUCKLING WAS TREATED AT HOME
The next day it was bright, beautiful weather; the sun shone on all the green burdocks. The Mother-Duck, with all her family, went down to the canal. Splash! she jumped into the water. "Quack! quack!" she said, and one duckling after another plumped in. The water closed over their heads, but they came up in an instant, and swam off finely; their legs went of themselves, and they were all in the water; even the ugly gray Duckling swam with them.
"No, it's not a turkey," said she: "look how well he uses his legs, how straight he holds himself. It is my own child! On the whole he's quite pretty, when one looks at him rightly. Quack! quack! come now with me, and I'll lead you out into the world, and present you in the duck-yard; but keep close to me all the time, so that no one may tread on you, and look out for the cats."
And so they came into the duck-yard. There was a terrible row going on in there, for two families were fighting about an eel's head, and so the cat got it.
"See, that's the way it goes in the world!" said the Mother-Duck; and she whetted her beak, for she too wanted the eel's head. "Only use your legs," she said. "See that you can bustle about, and bend your necks before the old Duck yonder. She's the grandest of all here; she's of Spanish blood--that's why she's so fat; and do you see? she has a red rag around her leg; that's something very, very fine, and the greatest mark of honor a duck can have: it means that one does not want to lose her, and that she's known by the animals and by men too. Hurry! hurry!--don't turn in your toes, a well brought-up duck turns its toes quite out, just like father and mother,--so! Now bend your necks and say 'Quack!'"
And they did so; but the other ducks round about looked at them, and said quite boldly,--"Look there! now we're to have this crowd too! as if there were not enough of us already! And--fie!--how that Duckling yonder looks: we won't stand that!" And at once one Duck flew at him, and bit him in the neck.
"Let him alone," said the mother: "he is not doing anything to any one."
"Yes, but he's too large and odd," said the Duck who had bitten him, "and so he must be put down."
"Those are pretty children the mother has," said the old Duck with the rag round her leg. "They're all pretty but that one; that is rather unlucky. I wish she could have that one over again."
"That cannot be done, my lady," said the Mother-Duck. "He is not pretty, but he has a really good temper, and swims as well as any of the others; yes, I may even say it, a little better. I think he will grow up pretty, perhaps in time he will grow a little smaller; he lay too long in the egg, and therefore he has not quite the right shape." And she pinched him in the neck, and smoothed his feathers. "Besides, he is a drake (boy duck)," she said, "and so it does not matter much. I think he will be very strong: he makes his way already."
"The other ducklings are graceful enough," said the old Duck. "Make yourself at home; and if you find an eel's head, you may bring it to me."
And now they were at home. But the poor Duckling who had crept last out of the egg, and looked so ugly, was bitten and pushed and made fun of, as much by the ducks as by the chickens.
"He is too big!" they all said. And the turkey-cock, who had been born with spurs, and so thought he was an emperor, blew himself up, like a ship in full sail, and bore straight down upon him; then he gobbled and grew quite red in the face. The poor Duckling did not know where he dared stand or walk; he was quite unhappy because he looked ugly, and was the sport of the whole duck-yard.
So it went on the first day; and then it grew worse and worse. The poor Duckling was hunted about by every one; even his brothers and sisters were quite angry with him, and said, "If the cat would only catch you, you ugly creature!" And the ducks bit him, and the chickens beat him, and the girl who had to feed the poultry kicked at him with her foot.
III--THE UGLY DUCKLING OUT ON THE MOOR
Then he ran and flew over the fence, and the little birds in the bushes flew up in fear.
"That is because I am so ugly!" thought the Duckling; and he shut his eyes, but flew on further; and so he came out into the great moor, where the wild ducks lived. Here he lay the whole night long, he was so tired and sad.
Toward morning the wild ducks flew up, and looked at their new mate.
"What sort of a one are you?" they asked; and the Duckling turned about to each, and bowed as well as he could. "You are really very ugly!" said the Wild Ducks. "But that is all the same to us, so long as you do not marry into our family."
Poor thing! he certainly did not think of marrying, and only dared ask leave to lie among the reeds and drink some of the swamp water.
There he lay two whole days; then came thither two wild geese, or, more truly, two wild ganders (male geese). It was not long since each had crept out of an egg, and that's why they were so saucy.
"Listen, comrade," said one of them. "You're so ugly that I like you. Will you go with us, and become a bird of passage? Near here is another moor (marsh), where are a few sweet lovely wild geese, all unmarried, and all able to say 'Quack!' You've a chance of making your fortune, ugly as you are."
"Piff! paff!" sounded through the air; and both the ganders fell down dead in the reeds, and the water became blood-red. "Piff! paff!" it sounded again, and the whole flock of wild geese flew up from the reeds. And then there was another report. A great hunt was going on. The gunners lay around in the moor, and some were even sitting up in the branches of the trees, which spread far over the reeds. The blue smoke rose like clouds in among the dark trees, and hung over the water; and the hunting dogs came--splash, splash!--into the mud, and the rushes and reeds bent down on every side. That was a fright for the poor Duckling! He turned his head to put it under his wing; and at that very moment a frightful great dog stood close by the Duckling. His tongue hung far out of his mouth, and his eyes glared horribly. He put his nose close to the Duckling, showed his sharp teeth, and--splash, splash!--on he went without seizing it.
"Oh, Heaven be thanked!" sighed the Duckling. "I am so ugly that even the dog does not like to bite me!"
And so he lay quite quiet, while the shots rattled through the reeds and gun after gun was fired. At last, late in the day, all was still: but the poor little thing did not dare to rise up; he waited several hours still before he looked around, and then hurried away out of the moor as fast as he could. He ran on over field and meadow; there was a storm, so that he had hard work to get away.
IV--THE UGLY DUCKLING IN THE PEASANT'S HUT
Towards evening the Duckling came to a peasant's poor little hut: it was so tumbled down that it did not itself know on which side it should fall; and that's why it stood up. The storm whistled around the Duckling in such a way that he had to sit down to keep from blowing away; and the wind blew worse and worse. Then he noticed that one of the hinges of the door had given way, and the door hung so slanting that he could slip through the crack into the room; and that is what he did.
Here lived an old woman, with her Cat and her Hen. And the Cat, whom she called Sonnie, could arch his back and purr; he could even give out sparks--but for that, one had to stroke his fur the wrong way. The Hen had quite small, short legs, and therefore she was called Chickabiddy Shortshanks; she laid good eggs, and the woman loved her as her own child.
In the morning they noticed at once the strange Duckling, and the Cat began to purr and the Hen to cluck.
"What's this?" said the woman, and looked all around; but she could not see well, and therefore she thought the Duckling was a fat duck that had strayed. "This is a rare prize!" she said. "Now I shall have duck's eggs. I hope it is not a drake. We must try that."
And so the Duckling was taken on trial for three weeks, but no eggs came. And the Cat was master of the house, and the Hen was the lady, and always said "We and the world!" for they thought they were half the world, and by far the better half. It seemed to the Duckling that one might have another mind, but the Hen would not allow it.
"Can you lay eggs?"
"Then will you hold your tongue!"
And the Cat said, "Can you curve your back, and purr, and give out sparks?"
"Then you will please have no opinion of your own when sensible folks are speaking!"
And the Duckling sat in a corner and was in low spirits; then he began to think of the fresh air and the sunshine; and he was seized with such a strange longing to swim on the water, that he could not help telling the Hen of it.
"What are you thinking of?" cried the Hen. "You have nothing to do, that's why you have these fancies. Lay eggs, or purr, and they will pass over."
"But it is so charming to swim in the water," said the Duckling, "so nice to feel it go over one's head, and to dive down to the bottom!"
"Yes, that's a fine thing, truly," said the Hen. "You are clean gone crazy. Ask the Cat about it,--he's the cleverest thing I know,--ask him if he likes to swim in the water, or to dive down: I won't speak about myself. Ask our mistress herself, the old woman; no one in the world knows more than she. Do you think she wants to swim, and let the water close above her head?"
"You don't understand me," said the Duckling.
"We don't understand you! Then pray who is to understand you? You surely don't pretend to be cleverer than the Cat and the woman--I won't say anything of myself. Don't make a fool of yourself, child, and thank your Maker for all the good you have. Are you not come into a warm room, and have you not folks about you from whom you can learn something? But you are a goose, and it is not pleasant to have you about. You may believe me, I speak for your good. I tell you things you won't like, and by that one may always know one's true friends! Only take care that you learn to lay eggs, or to purr, and to give out sparks!"
"I think I will go out into the wide world," said the Duckling.
"Yes, do go," replied the Hen.
And so the Duckling went away. He swam on the water, and dived, but he was shunned by every creature because he was so ugly.
V--WHAT BECAME OF THE UGLY DUCKLING
Now came the fall of the year. The leaves in the wood turned yellow and brown; the wind caught them so that they danced about, and up in the air it was very cold. The clouds hung low, heavy with hail and snow-flakes, and on the fence stood the raven, crying "Croak! croak!" for mere cold; yes, one could freeze fast if one thought about it. The poor little Duckling certainly had not a good time. One evening--the sun was just going down in fine style--there came a whole flock of great handsome birds out of the bushes; they were shining white, with long, supple necks; they were swans. They uttered a very strange cry, spread forth their glorious great wings, and flew away from that cold region to warmer lands, to fair open lakes. They mounted so high, so high! and the ugly Duckling had such a strange feeling as he saw them! He turned round and round in the water like a wheel, stretched out his neck towards them, and uttered a cry, so high, so strange, that he was frightened as he heard it.
Oh! he could not forget those beautiful, happy birds; and as soon as he could see them no longer, he dived down to the very bottom, and when he came up again, he was quite beside himself. He did not know what the birds were, nor where they were flying to; but he loved them more than he had ever loved any one. He did not envy them at all. How could he think of wishing to have such loveliness as they had? He would have been glad if only the ducks would have let him be among them--the poor, ugly creature!
And the winter grew so cold, so cold! The Duckling had to swim about in the water, to keep it from freezing over; but every night the hole in which he swam about became smaller and smaller. It froze so hard that the icy cover sounded (the quickly freezing ice made cracking sounds); and the Duckling had to use his legs all the time to keep the hole from freezing tight. At last he became worn out, and lay quite still, and thus froze fast in the ice.
Early in the morning a peasant came by, and found him there; he took his wooden shoe, broke the ice to pieces, and carried the Duckling home to his wife. Then the Duckling came to himself again. The children wanted to play with him; but he thought they wanted to hurt him, and in his terror he flew up into the milk-pan, so that the milk spilled over into the room. The woman screamed and shook her hand in the air, at which the Duckling flew down into the tub where they kept the butter, and then into the meal-barrel and out again. How he looked then! The woman screamed, and struck at him with the fire tongs; the children tumbled over one another as they tried to catch the Duckling; and they laughed and they screamed!--well was it that the door stood open, and the poor creature was able to slip out between the bushes into the newly-fallen snow--there he lay quite worn out.
But it would be too sad if I were to tell all the misery and care which the Duckling had to bear in the hard winter. He lay out on the moor among the reeds, when the sun began to shine again and the larks to sing; it was a beautiful spring.
Then all at once the Duckling could flap his wings: they beat the air more strongly than before, and bore him stoutly away; and before he well knew it, he found himself in a great garden, where the elder-trees stood in flower, and bent their long green branches down to the winding canal, and the lilacs smelt sweet. Oh, here it was beautiful, fresh, and springlike! and from the thicket came three glorious white swans; they rustled their wings, and sat lightly on the water. The Duckling knew the splendid creatures, and felt a strange sadness.
"I will fly away to them, to the royal birds! and they will beat me, because I, that am so ugly, dare to come near them. But it is all the same. Better to be killed by them than to be chased by ducks, and beaten by fowls, and pushed about by the girl who takes care of the poultry yard, and to suffer hunger in winter!" And he flew out into the water, and swam toward the beautiful swans: these looked at him, and came sailing down upon him with outspread wings. "Kill me!" said the poor creature, and bent his head down upon the water, and waited for death. But what saw he in the clear water? He saw below him his own image; and lo! it was no longer a clumsy dark-gray bird, ugly and hateful to look at, but--a swan!
It matters nothing if one is born in a duck-yard, if one has only lain in a swan's egg.
He felt quite glad at all the need and hard times he had borne; now he could joy in his good luck in all the brightness that was round him. And the great swans swam round him and stroked him with their beaks.
Into the garden came little children, who threw bread and corn into the water; and the youngest cried, "There is a new one!" and the other children shouted, "Yes, a new one has come!" And they clapped their hands and danced about, and ran to their father and mother; and bread and cake were thrown into the water; and they all said, "The new one is the most beautiful of all! so young and so handsome!" and the old swans bowed their heads before him.
Then he felt quite ashamed, and hid his head under his wings, for he did not know what to do; he was so happy, and yet not at all proud, for a good heart is never proud. He thought how he had been driven about and mocked and despised; and now he heard them all saying that he was the most beautiful of all beautiful birds. And the lilacs bent their branches straight down into the water before him, and the sun shone warm and mild. Then his wings rustled, he lifted his slender neck, and cried from the depths of his heart:--
"I never dreamed of so much happiness when I was the Ugly Duckling."