We craft and tell stories because we’ve stood on the uncertain edge between the waking world and our imagination, between enchantment and fear. And we remember other stories that help us build our own stories, scraps of lumber and fragments of narrative we gather together to make stories for ourselves.

Two Ways of Reading “The Ugly Duckling”: A Guest Post by Li Xiaoheng


Almost everyone has heard The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen. In this tale, the duckling looks so ugly that he’s excluded by other animals and even his family. He leaves home and suffers a lot all the way, but finally he becomes a beautiful swan. This story has a happy ending which I have loved since I was a child. However, as I grew up, my opinion about the ugly duckling’s success changed. In my opinion, my change in attitude has determined how I deal with success and difficulties in reality.

When I was a child, I thought that the gist of the story meant that “as long as you don’t give up, you will be successful one day.” The ugly duckling was miserable every time he was excluded, but he didn’t give up until he became a beautiful swan. The happy ending encouraged me to be a persistent person like him. However, as I grew up, I realized that the mother duck was actually incubating a swan’s egg. That was why the ugly duckling could become a swan. So, the gist of the story for me now became “how a cygnet becomes a beautiful swan”—which discouraged me. I knew clearly that if the ugly duckling was really a duck, he could not become a swan. So similarly, I thought that only those born geniuses could succeed in reality. That is to say, I thought that natural talent was the most important factor of success both in this fairy tale and in reality.

I had to agree that if the ugly duckling couldn’t withstand pain, he wouldn’t achieve success, which encouraged me to some degree, both as a child and an adult. When I was a child, I was excited to get this encouragement. I believed I could succeed like the ugly duckling as long as I overcame all difficulties. However, I soon realized that this was easier said than done. In reality, experiencing every failure was just like running smack into a brick wall. After getting around it, I had the ability to keep moving, but the pain from hitting the wall would stop me. And when I considered that the most important factor of success was natural talent, it grew difficult for me to overcome difficulties persistently. It seemed unrealistic for me to be a real-life ugly duckling.

I didn’t change my mind until I examined myself sincerely. I began to see that my opinion about the ugly duckling’s success was not always advisable. For instance, when I was a high school student I learned to play the guitar. In the beginning, I prepared to meet all the difficulties, but after my fingers were scratched by the guitar strings several times my resolution swayed. I knew I had the ability to try again, but every time I picked up my guitar I recalled the stabbing pain and the terrible blisters on my fingers, and finally put it down. Thinking of the ugly duckling’s success, I blamed my failure on the lack of talent. But then I saw one of my friends—someone the music teacher thought had no talent—playing the guitar well by practicing heaps of times, and showing me a real-life ugly duckling. I realized that, because I regarded natural talent as the most important factor of success, I lacked motivation to struggle for success.

I’ve come to understand that when I look at The Ugly Duckling from the perspective of a child, I find a positive attitude and motivation to face difficulties in reality. But when I read it from the perspective of an adult, I tend to keep a negative attitude towards both success and failure. Moreover, in my opinion, the readers of The Ugly Duckling, including adults and children, tend to have two attitudes towards success. Adults regard success as the result of the natural talent, while children are determined to keep struggling for success without flinch.

I think that The Ugly Duckling reflects children and adults’ common aspiration: one can achieve success as long as he has persistence. Children would be encouraged by this story, and they believe they can apply what they have learned from it to life. Nevertheless, adults often don’t think they can get success by overcoming difficulties if they lack the natural talent. Maybe adults’ thinking is reasonable, for it combines the story with their experience in reality, but their thinking discourages them from pursuing their dreams without fear. Perhaps only those who look at the ugly duckling with childish eyes will believe this fairy tale, believe they can be stronger, and find success.



Andersen. H. C. Eventyr og Historier. Trans. Ye, Junjian. Nanjing: Yilin Press, 2014.[安徒生. 《安徒生童话选集》 . 叶君健译. 南京:译林出版社,2014年]

Li Xiaoheng is a third-year English major at Shantou University, China.


Reader Comments

  1. An interesting article, which has motivated me to reread this story more than forty years after I first read it!

  2. I have always believed that the ugly duckling tale was about the feeling or experience of being unlike your family. The one who no matter how hard they try just doesn’t fit in, despite any love or nurture received. The duckling, after seeing the swans yearns to be like them, they epitomise all his deep longings and he feels an awakening, the need to unfold his wings, to stop trying to fit in and to become what he truly is. ( ps. there is nothing wrong with ducks! )

    Perhaps the personal slant and understanding received by hearing a fairy tale shows what a powerful medium story is. We all hear what we want or need to hear as we travel through our psychological landscapes. The essayist is trying to reconcile the message that success is a goal to be worked hard for and perhaps the resolution she needs is to interpret the tale in a way that absolves this received directive and find her own understanding of it. Just as my need for resolution stems from exile and not belonging. Hans Christian Anderson had his own needs for reinterpretation and resolution and his own agenda for writing it.

  3. I portray H.C. Andersen in storytelling performances around the world. I appreciated this insightful examination of the messages found in “The Ugly Duckling”. I think you have some good points.
    I think that the UD eventually realized that what he truly was inside was greater than the view of those around him. He came to see himself through his own eyes, unclouded by the limitations and faults that others had imposed on him. I think HCA was trying to point out the nobility in us all that sometimes is beaten down by the low aspirations and limited perspectives of the common crowd. Thank you!

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