The Ugly Duckling – A Metaphor for the Human Condition

When I was younger, Hans Christian Anderson’s tale ‘The Ugly Duckling’ never struck me as anything else, but another fairy tale   My Tibetan Buddhist teacher’s narration of a similar tale, ‘The Chicken Eagle’, sparked my interest in revisiting the story of ‘The Ugly Duckling’.  This time, I was awestruck by its profundity.

Hans Christian Anderson manages to package life’s trials and tribulations, the human condition of suffering, and the way to overcome it into a story seemingly geared toward the young.  Upon closer investigation of the metaphors and symbolism, the story’s significance and its suitability for all ages becomes quite clear.

First, the author lets us identify ourselves with the ugly duckling.  We recognize that we, too, are experiencing suffering from abuse, rejection, loss or bullying in our own lives, unable to find a way out of the cycle of misery.  For every kindness shown to us we encounter unkindness.  Life seems to be a continuous stream of ups and downs.

Lonesome and sad, the ugly duckling sets off by himself seeking relief for his misery.  He withdraws from the world and spends an entire winter alone in hiding.  One can quickly see the parallels between the metaphors of winter and a desert.  Everything is barren.  Winter and the desert, both signify solitude and present themselves for introspection and a struggle with one’s own concept of the Self.

The story climaxes as winter is followed by spring, symbolic for new beginnings and new life, and the ugly duckling reaches a point where he’d rather throw himself at a flock of swans on the thawing lake and be killed than endure anymore suffering.  He has become so weary with life that he decides to surrender.  At that very moment, he comes to realize his true nature.  For the first time in his life, he is able to spread his beautiful wings and take flight.


The ugly duckling has to go through suffering to receive the spark for wanting to seek the truth.  He has to endure trials and tribulations before he decides to surrender his ego.  Through dying he realizes the true nature of his self and is liberated from the suffering caused by his delusions.

Plot Summary of The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Anderson (taken from Wikipedia )

When the tale begins, a mother duck’s eggs hatch. One of the little birds is perceived by the duck’s surroundings as a homely little creature and suffers much verbal and physical abuse from the other birds and animals on the farm. He wanders sadly from the barnyard and lives with wild ducks and geese until hunters slaughter the flocks. He then finds a home with an old woman but her cat and hen tease him mercilessly and again he sets off on his own. He sees a flock of migrating wild swans; he is delighted and excited but he cannot join them for he is too young and cannot fly. Winter arrives. A farmer finds and carries the freezing little bird home, but the foundling is frightened by the farmer’s noisy children and flees the house. He spends a miserable winter alone in the outdoors mostly hiding in a cave on the lake that partly freezes over. When spring arrives a flock of swans descends on the now thawing lake. The ugly duckling, now having fully grown and matured cannot endure a life of solitude and hardship any more and decides to throw himself at the flock of swans deciding that it is better to be killed by such beautiful birds than to live a life of ugliness and misery. He is shocked when the swans welcome and accept him, only to realize by looking at his reflection in the water that he has grown into one of them. The flock takes to the air and the ugly duckling spreads his beautiful large wings and takes flight with the rest of his new family.