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The Ugly Duckling
Hans Christian Andersen
It was so beautiful out on the country, it was summer- the wheat fields were golden, the
oats were green, and down among the green meadows the hay was stacked. There the
stork minced about on his red legs, clacking away in Egyptian, which was the language his
mother had taught him. Round about the field and meadow lands rose vast forests, in
which deep lakes lay hidden. Yes, it was indeed lovely out there in the country.
In the midst of the sunshine there stood an old manor house that had a deep moat around
it. From the walls of the manor right down to the water's edge great burdock leaves grew,
and there were some so tall that little children could stand upright beneath the biggest of
them. In this wilderness of leaves, which was as dense as the forests itself, a duck sat on
her nest, hatching her ducklings. She was becoming somewhat weary, because sitting is
such a dull business and scarcely anyone came to see her. The other ducks would much
rather swim in the moat than waddle out and squat under the burdock leaf to gossip with
But at last the eggshells began to crack, one after another. "Peep, peep!" said the little
things, as they came to life and poked out their heads.
"Quack, quack!" said the duck, and quick as quick can be they all waddled out to have a
look at the green world under the leaves. Their mother let them look as much as they
pleased, because green is good for the eyes.
"How wide the world is," said all the young ducks, for they certainly had much more room
now than they had when they were in their eggshells.
"Do you think this is the whole world?" their mother asked. "Why it extends on and on,
clear across to the other side of the garden and right on into the parson's field, though that
is further than I have ever been. I do hope you are all hatched," she said as she got up.
"No, not quite all. The biggest egg still lies here. How much longer is this going to take? I
am really rather tired of it all," she said, but she settled back on her nest.
"Well, how goes it?" asked an old duck who came to pay her a call.
"It takes a long time with that one egg," said the duck on the nest. "It won't crack, but look
at the others. They are the cutest little ducklings I've ever seen. They look exactly like their
father, the wretch! He hasn't come to see me at all."
"Let's have a look at the egg that won't crack," the old duck said. "It's a turkey egg, and
you can take my word for it. I was fooled like that once myself. What trouble and care I
had with those turkey children, for I may as well tell you, they are afraid of the water. I
simply could not get them into it. I quacked and snapped at them, but it wasn't a bit of use.
Let me see the egg. Certainly, it's a turkey egg. Let it lie, and go teach your other children
to swim."
"Oh, I'll sit a little longer. I've been at it so long already that I may as well sit here half the
"Suit yourself," said the old duck, and away she waddled.
At last the big egg did crack. "Peep," said the young one, and out he tumbled, but he was
so big and ugly.
The duck took a look at him. "That's a frightfully big duckling," she said. "He doesn't look
the least like the others. Can he really be a turkey baby? Well, well! I'll soon find out. Into
the water he shall go, even if I have to shove him in myself."
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Next day the weather was perfectly splendid, and the sun shone down on all the green
burdock leaves. The mother duck led her whole family down to the moat. Splash! she took
to the water. "Quack, quack," said she, and one duckling after another plunged in. The
water went over their heads, but they came up in a flash, and floated to perfection. Their
legs worked automatically, and they were all there in the water. Even the big, ugly gray
one was swimming along.
"Why, that's no turkey," she said. "See how nicely he uses his legs, and how straight he
holds himself. He's my very own son after all, and quite good-looking if you look at him
properly. Quack, quack come with me. I'll lead you out into the world and introduce you to
the duck yard. But keep close to me so that you won't get stepped on, and watch out for
the cat!"
Thus they sallied into the duck yard, where all was in an uproar because two families were
fighting over the head of an eel. But the cat got it, after all.
"You see, that's the way of the world." The mother duck licked her bill because she
wanted the eel's head for herself. "Stir your legs. Bustle about, and mind that you bend
your necks to that old duck over there. She's the noblest of us all, and has Spanish blood
in her. That's why she's so fat. See that red rag around her leg? That's a wonderful thing,
and the highest distinction a duck can get. It shows that they don't want to lose her, and
that she's to have special attention from man and beast. Shake yourselves! Don't turn
your toes in. A well-bred duckling turns his toes way out, just as his father and mother do-
this way. So then! Now duck your necks and say quack!"
They did as she told them, but the other ducks around them looked on and said right out
loud, "See here! Must we have this brood too, just as if there weren't enough of us
already? And-fie! what an ugly-looking fellow that duckling is! We won't stand for him."
One duck charged up and bit his neck.
"Let him alone," his mother said. "He isn't doing any harm."
"Possibly not," said the duck who bit him, "but he's too big and strange, and therefore he
needs a good whacking."
"What nice-looking children you have, Mother," said the old duck with the rag around her
leg. "They are all pretty except that one. He didn't come out so well. It's a pity you can't
hatch him again."
"That can't be managed, your ladyship," said the mother. "He isn't so handsome, but he's
as good as can be, and he swims just as well as the rest, or, I should say, even a little
better than they do. I hope his looks will improve with age, and after a while he won't seem
so big. He took too long in the egg, and that's why his figure isn't all that it should be." She
pinched his neck and preened his feathers. "Moreover, he's a drake, so it won't matter so
much. I think he will be quite strong, and I'm sure he will amount to something."
"The other ducklings are pretty enough," said the old duck. "Now make yourselves right at
home, and if you find an eel's head you may bring it to me."
So they felt quite at home. But the poor duckling who had been the last one out of his egg,
and who looked so ugly, was pecked and pushed about and made fun of by the ducks,
and the chickens as well. "He's too big," said they all. The turkey gobbler, who thought
himself an emperor because he was born wearing spurs, puffed up like a ship under full
sail and bore down upon him, gobbling and gobbling until he was red in the face. The poor
duckling did not know where he dared stand or where he dared walk. He was so sad
because he was so desperately ugly, and because he was the laughing stock of the whole
So it went on the first day, and after that things went from bad to worse. The poor duckling
was chased and buffeted about by everyone. Even his own brothers and sisters abused
him. "Oh," they would always say, "how we wish the cat would catch you, you ugly thing."
And his mother said, "How I do wish you were miles away." The ducks nipped him, and
the hens pecked him, and the girl who fed them kicked him with her foot.
So he ran away; and he flew over the fence. The little birds in the bushes darted up in a
fright. "That's because I'm so ugly," he thought, and closed his eyes, but he ran on just the
same until he reached the great marsh where the wild ducks lived. There he lay all night
long, weary and disheartened.
When morning came, the wild ducks flew up to have a look at their new companion. "What
sort of creature are you?" they asked, as the duckling turned in all directions, bowing his
best to them all. "You are terribly ugly," they told him, "but that's nothing to us so long as
you don't marry into our family."
Poor duckling! Marriage certainly had never entered his mind. All he wanted was for them
to let him lie among the reeds and drink a little water from the marsh.
There he stayed for two whole days. Then he met two wild geese, or rather wild ganders-
for they were males. They had not been out of the shell very long, and that's what made
them so sure of themselves.
"Say there, comrade," they said, "you're so ugly that we have taken a fancy to you. Come
with us and be a bird of passage. In another marsh near-by, there are some fetching wild
geese, all nice young ladies who know how to quack. You are so ugly that you'll
completely turn their heads."
Bing! Bang! Shots rang in the air, and these two ganders fell dead among the reeds. The
water was red with their blood. Bing! Bang! the shots rang, and as whole flocks of wild
geese flew up from the reeds another volley crashed. A great hunt was in progress. The
hunters lay under cover all around the marsh, and some even perched on branches of
trees that overhung the reeds. Blue smoke rose like clouds from the shade of the trees,
and drifted far out over the water.
The bird dogs came splash, splash! through the swamp, bending down the reeds and the
rushes on every side. This gave the poor duckling such a fright that he twisted his head
about to hide it under his wing. But at that very moment a fearfully big dog appeared right
beside him. His tongue lolled out of his mouth and his wicked eyes glared horribly. He
opened his wide jaws, flashed his sharp teeth, and - splash, splash - on he went without
touching the duckling.
"Thank heavens," he sighed, "I'm so ugly that the dog won't even bother to bite me."
He lay perfectly still, while the bullets splattered through the reeds as shot after shot was
fired. It was late in the day before things became quiet again, and even then the poor
duckling didn't dare move. He waited several hours before he ventured to look about him,
and then he scurried away from that marsh as fast as he could go. He ran across field and
meadows. The wind was so strong that he had to struggle to keep his feet.
Late in the evening he came to a miserable little hovel, so ramshackle that it did not know
which way to tumble, and that was the only reason it still stood. The wind struck the
duckling so hard that the poor little fellow had to sit down on his tail to withstand it. The
storm blew stronger and stronger, but the duckling noticed that one hinge had come loose
and the door hung so crooked that he could squeeze through the crack into the room, and
that's just what he did.
Here lived an old woman with her cat and her hen. The cat, whom she called "Sonny,"
could arch his back, purr, and even make sparks, though for that you had to stroke his fur
the wrong way. The hen had short little legs, so she was called "Chickey Shortleg." She
laid good eggs, and the old woman loved her as if she had been her own child.
In the morning they were quick to notice the strange duckling. The cat began to purr, and
the hen began to cluck.
"What on earth!" The old woman looked around, but she was short-sighted, and she
mistook the duckling for a fat duck that had lost its way. "That was a good catch," she
said. "Now I shall have duck eggs-unless it's a drake. We must try it out." So the duckling
was tried out for three weeks, but not one egg did he lay.
In this house the cat was master and the hen was mistress. They always said, "We and
the world," for they thought themselves half of the world, and much the better half at that.
The duckling thought that there might be more than one way of thinking, but the hen would
not hear of it.
"Can you lay eggs?" she asked
"Then be so good as to hold your tongue."
The cat asked, "Can you arch your back, purr, or make sparks?"
"Then keep your opinion to yourself when sensible people are talking."
The duckling sat in a corner, feeling most despondent. Then he remembered the fresh air
and the sunlight. Such a desire to go swimming on the water possessed him that he could
not help telling the hen about it.
"What on earth has come over you?" the hen cried. "You haven't a thing to do, and that's
why you get such silly notions. Lay us an egg, or learn to purr, and you'll get over it."
"But it's so refreshing to float on the water," said the duckling, "so refreshing to feel it rise
over your head as you dive to the bottom."
"Yes, it must be a great pleasure!" said the hen. "I think you must have gone crazy. Ask
the cat, who's the wisest fellow I know, whether he likes to swim or dive down in the water.
Of myself I say nothing. But ask the old woman, our mistress. There's no one on earth
wiser than she is. Do you imagine she wants to go swimming and feel the water rise over
her head?"
"You don't understand me," said the duckling.
"Well, if we don't, who would? Surely you don't think you are cleverer than the cat and the
old woman-to say nothing of myself. Don't be so conceited, child. Just thank your Maker
for all the kindness we have shown you. Didn't you get into this snug room, and fall in with
people who can tell you what's what? But you are such a numbskull that it's no pleasure to
have you around. Believe me, I tell you this for your own good. I say unpleasant truths, but
that's the only way you can know who are your friends. Be sure now that you lay some
eggs. See to it that you learn to purr or to make sparks."
"I think I'd better go out into the wide world," said the duckling.
"Suit yourself," said the hen.
So off went the duckling. He swam on the water, and dived down in it, but still he was
slighted by every living creature because of his ugliness.
Autumn came on. The leaves in the forest turned yellow and brown. The wind took them
and whirled them about. The heavens looked cold as the low clouds hung heavy with
snow and hail. Perched on the fence, the raven screamed, "Caw, caw!" and trembled with
cold. It made one shiver to think of it. Pity the poor little duckling!
One evening, just as the sun was setting in splendor, a great flock of large, handsome
birds appeared out of the reeds. The duckling had never seen birds so beautiful. They
were dazzling white, with long graceful necks. They were swans. They uttered a very
strange cry as they unfurled their magnificent wings to fly from this cold land, away to
warmer countries and to open waters. They went up so high, so very high, that the ugly
little duckling felt a strange uneasiness come over him as he watched them. He went
around and round in the water, like a wheel. He craned his neck to follow their course, and
gave a cry so shrill and strange that he frightened himself. Oh! He could not forget them-
those splendid, happy birds. When he could no longer see them he dived to the very
bottom. and when he came up again he was quite beside himself. He did not know what
birds they were or whither they were bound, yet he loved them more than anything he had
ever loved before. It was not that he envied them, for how could he ever dare dream of
wanting their marvelous beauty for himself? He would have been grateful if only the ducks
would have tolerated him-the poor ugly creature.
The winter grew cold - so bitterly cold that the duckling had to swim to and fro in the water
to keep it from freezing over. But every night the hole in which he swam kept getting
smaller and smaller. Then it froze so hard that the duckling had to paddle continuously to
keep the crackling ice from closing in upon him. At last, too tired to move, he was frozen
fast in the ice.
Early that morning a farmer came by, and when he saw how things were he went out on
the pond, broke away the ice with his wooden shoe, and carried the duckling home to his
wife. There the duckling revived, but when the children wished to play with him he thought
they meant to hurt him. Terrified, he fluttered into the milk pail, splashing the whole room
with milk. The woman shrieked and threw up her hands as he flew into the butter tub, and
then in and out of the meal barrel. Imagine what he looked like now! The woman
screamed and lashed out at him with the fire tongs. The children tumbled over each other
as they tried to catch him, and they laughed and they shouted. Luckily the door was open,
and the duckling escaped through it into the bushes, where he lay down, in the newly
fallen snow, as if in a daze.
But it would be too sad to tell of all the hardships and wretchedness he had to endure
during this cruel winter. When the warm sun shone once more, the duckling was still alive
among the reeds of the marsh. The larks began to sing again. It was beautiful springtime.
Then, quite suddenly, he lifted his wings. They swept through the air much more strongly
than before, and their powerful strokes carried him far. Before he quite knew what was
happening, he found himself in a great garden where apple trees bloomed. The lilacs filled
the air with sweet scent and hung in clusters from long, green branches that bent over a
winding stream. Oh, but it was lovely here in the freshness of spring!
From the thicket before him came three lovely white swans. They ruffled their feathers and
swam lightly in the stream. The duckling recognized these noble creatures, and a strange
feeling of sadness came upon him.
"I shall fly near these royal birds, and they will peck me to bits because I, who am so very
ugly, dare to go near them. But I don't care. Better be killed by them than to be nipped by
the ducks, pecked by the hens, kicked about by the hen-yard girl, or suffer such misery in
So he flew into the water and swam toward the splendid swans. They saw him, and swept
down upon him with their rustling feathers raised. "Kill me!" said the poor creature, and he
bowed his head down over the water to wait for death. But what did he see there, mirrored
in the clear stream? He beheld his own image, and it was no longer the reflection of a
clumsy, dirty, gray bird, ugly and offensive. He himself was a swan! Being born in a duck
yard does not matter, if only you are hatched from a swan's egg.
He felt quite glad that he had come through so much trouble and misfortune, for now he
had a fuller understanding of his own good fortune, and of beauty when he met with it.
The great swans swam all around him and stroked him with their bills.
Several little children came into the garden to throw grain and bits of bread upon the
water. The smallest child cried, "Here's a new one," and the others rejoiced, "yes, a new
one has come." They clapped their hands, danced around, and ran to bring their father
and mother.
And they threw bread and cake upon the water, while they all agreed, "The new one is the
most handsome of all. He's so young and so good-looking." The old swans bowed in his
Then he felt very bashful, and tucked his head under his wing. He did not know what this
was all about. He felt so very happy, but he wasn't at all proud, for a good heart never
grows proud. He thought about how he had been persecuted and scorned, and now he
heard them all call him the most beautiful of all beautiful birds. The lilacs dipped their
clusters into the stream before him, and the sun shone so warm and so heartening. He
rustled his feathers and held his slender neck high, as he cried out with full heart: "I never
dreamed there could be so much happiness, when I was the ugly duckling."
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