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“The Ugly Duckling” – Book Review

Somehow I never had the opportunity to read this classic tale in its original format written by Hans Christian Andersen. I have read abridged stories based on his book and never cared for the story other than the fact that it provided an interesting concept that could be discussed.

The plot of the story goes something like this: our hero is born very ugly in the midst of three other beautiful ducklings. And from there it takes off and degenerates into a story of such explicit violence that it took me completely by surprise. All because the duckling is big and ugly and not soft and cuddly! If it had been more along the lines of the duckling being interrupted because it looked different and bigger, then it might have been an interesting read, but being singled out as saying you look ugly smacks of prejudice and bigotry. Those were always my thoughts whenever I came across the phrase ‘ugly duckling’.

Last night I had the (mis)fortune to find a free version of this book on my Kindle. I thought this would make a great bedtime story for my 7 and 5 year old. I made a mistake! The story was so violent that halfway through the book I had to stop reading it aloud to the children. I continued to be mesmerized that a children’s fairy tale could have so much bullying, suffering and extreme torture built into it. Similar to the fate of the poor ugly ducklings, the book is plagued with extreme intolerance towards people who are labeled ugly because they don’t possess the requisites to be conventionally beautiful.

Wherever the duckling goes, misfortune follows. He gets bitten, cut, cursed at, abused, physically abused, kicked out and I could go on but I don’t want to scare my little readers and I’ll end by saying this little duckling survives it all and gets depressed and falls into self pity and self loathing. Yeah, I’m also surprised that this is supposed to be a children’s book by a famous author.

Wikipedia has this to say about this literary work: The Ugly Duckling” (Danish: Den grimme √¶lling) is a literary fairy tale by Danish poet and author Hans Christian Andersen (1805 – 1875). The story tells of a small homely bird born in a barnyard suffering abuse from those around him until, to his delight (and to the surprise of others), he matures into a beautiful swan, the most beautiful bird of all, personal transformation for the better.[1] “The Ugly Duckling” was first published on November 11, 1843 with three other Andersen short stories in Copenhagen, Denmark, to critical acclaim. The tale has been adapted into various media, including opera, musicals, and animated films. The tale is entirely Andersen’s invention and owes no debt to fairies or folklore.”

I am impressed reading that this is the case. Perhaps Andersen could have incorporated something into the duckling character that allowed him to go on the journey of transformation. Instead, he just cries and wails 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 boy who finds himself in the wrong place through no fault of his own and just goes with the flow of things wishing to die every day could have garnered so many positive reviews is beyond me.

(Spoiler 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 that he would have been forever doomed and would simply kill himself or accept the abuse the world was throwing at him? I would have liked to see more courage from the duckling. I know he had courage in him when he goes against the authority of the Chicken and the Cat and argues with them about how delicious it is to go outside instead of being cooped up in the house. I have to give it to Andersen, he manages to get a few laughs with his macho writing. An example of this is when the chicken responds to the duckling about its fanciful ideas of swimming in open water:

“What an absurd idea! You have nothing else to do, therefore you have silly fantasies. If you could purr or lay eggs, they would die!”

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

Andersen’s prejudice towards the fairer sex shines through when another mother duckling says of his alleged bad appearance: “He’s a duck and therefore doesn’t matter that much. I think he’ll grow up strong and able to take care of himself!” Wow! It’s good to hear that he would have been the end of the poor man if he had been a lady. I guess he should consider himself lucky.

Another good one is when the duckling lands in the middle of the wild ducks, hoping they’ll accept it as one of their own and this is what one of them has to say to him: “You’re extremely ugly, but it won’t matter if you don’t.” I want to marry someone in our family!” One sentence has so much bias 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 has gone from being an ugly duckling to the most beautiful swan you have ever seen, our hero “was happy to have suffered sorrows and troubles, because it allowed him to enjoy all the pleasure and happiness that surrounded him much better.” “. How noble of him!

What a boring and embarrassing book. Please read it, but please not with children. It is definitely not for them.

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