His earliest writings were based on stories he heard as a child, but he soon began constructing new and original stories, some of which reflected his humble background and ungainly looks. “The Ugly Duckling”, while universal in theme, is believed by some scholars to be an expression of his struggle with his homosexuality in an era in which same sex relations were illegal.
Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875) was a Danish author who left us an incredible legacy in the form of stories that transcend age and nationality such as “The Ugly Duckling”, “The Princess and the Pea”, “The Little Mermaid”, “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, “The Snow Queen”, “The Steadfast Tin Soldier”, “Thumbelina”, and “The Little Match Girl”.
In it’s proverbial form, “The Ugly Duckling” is an account of an unprepossessing, unsatisfactory member of one species evolving into a beautiful, admired member of another and encourages us to expect for ourselves an eventual transformation of situation and self for the better, whatever the restrictions of our early circumstances and the current low opinion of others.
Obviously this story is of irresistible appeal to insufficiently appreciated children, but also to those whose familial praise and appreciation seems in direct opposition to those of his peers. As an only child, I had been led to believe that I somehow possessed superior qualities in whatever field I entered. It was a pity that no one else shared their opinion!
Many children imagine themselves in the role of Prince or Princess, having somehow been switched at birth into a royal or more privileged family. I expressed a common desire to be found better than I was, and occasionally embarrassed my self by jumping into the fray only to be discovered lacking in whatever talent to which I had laid claim.
On one such occasion in a fourth grade talent show, I confidently sat at the piano and pounded out a “Russian” piece which I made up as I went along. The scalding looks and silence which greeted me fortunately kept me away from any further public piano recitals.
“The Ugly Ducking” assures us of the hope of acceptance during our unhappy times, while confounding all those authority figures who have given up on us or who have failed to see the possibility of excellence.
The inclination to bully those different from ourselves is universal, beginning in childhood. It involves the first taste of class consciousness, as well as the ability to exercise power over another. As a child, I attended a different school each year, in a different state. I was therefore somewhat different, and fair game for those inclined to bully. Bullying can take the form of rejection, sarcasm, a promise of some future aggressive action, or casual derogatory remarks, any of which can leave lifelong scars on a sensitive child.
The object of hostility, or at least aversion, can be either one who is richer, poorer, beautiful or homely, smart or dumb, fat or skinny. In other words, someone different from one’s self.
The current rash of NFL abuse cases springs from people trained to hit first and then ask questions. The difference in size and strength, the exorbitant amount of money paid these people, plus the weekend adulation given them, somehow makes them immune to ordinary behavior. We can only hope that public opinion and a steady reduction in their paychecks will eventually make them rejoin the human race.
It is interesting that “The Ugly Duckling” was Andersen’s most constant favorite and one for which he exclaimed to a friend in 1843 “It’s selling like hotcakes”! The similarities between Andersen’s life and the ugly duckling are irresistible. Andersen was gangly, poor, and uneducated–yet he became a literary star despite the under-appreciation he suffered. In a similar fashion, the hatchling is mistaken for a common duck and mistreated before discovering that he is a beautiful swan. He often remarked that “The Ugly Duckling” was the hardest story to compose, as it was the most autobiographical.
This classic example of an animal tale also spawned one of Andersen’s most famous quotes: ‘Being born in a duck yard does not matter, if only you are hatched from a swan’s egg’. In Andersen’s day, the definition of artistic genius was shifting and was less bound to class than it had been before. He was part of this exciting new breed, and the tale’s inspiring and hopeful message continues to make it one of Andersen’s most beloved stories to this day.
All of us know moments of oppressive solitude of the soul. What we want most at such times is the assurance that we are not unique in our emotions, that others have the same yearnings, have suffered similarly. “The Ugly Duckling is an instrument of profound comfort.