The Ugly Duckling: Summary, Characters & Author

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  • 0:01 Introduction to 'The…
  • 0:39 Story Summary
  • 1:56 Story Analysis
  • 3:20 Major Characters
  • 4:48 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Francesca Marinaro

Francesca M. Marinaro has a PhD in English from the University of Florida and has been teaching English composition and Literature since 2007.

Expert Contributor
Jenna Clayton

Jenna received her BA in English from Iowa State University in 2015, and she has taught at the secondary level for three years.

'The Ugly Duckling' is one of Danish storyteller Hans Christian Andersen's most famous fairytales. With a powerful message about self-image and acceptance, the story is valued for its ability to teach children the importance of kindness to others. This lesson gives you a brief plot summary and analysis, discusses the story's major characters, and finishes with a quiz to test your knowledge.

Introduction to the Ugly Duckling

Think of a time in your life when you felt left out or different; maybe you were the new kid in your school or your neighborhood, or the only person of your cultural background in your class. Maybe you can remember being teased for wearing glasses or braces, or for not being the best at kickball. These are all life experiences that teach us important lessons about acceptance and kindness towards others, and one of the most famous examples of such a lesson in children's literature is Danish storyteller Hans Christian Anderson's fairytale 'The Ugly Duckling,' published in 1843.

Story Summary

The story tells of a plain-looking little bird (the Ugly Duckling) born in a barnyard. His brothers and sisters as well as the other birds and animals on the farm tease him for being plain and ugly, so he runs off to live with a flock of wild ducks and geese until hunters shoot down the flock. Alone again, the Ugly Duckling finds a home with an old woman, but her cat and hen also tease him, so he doesn't stay there long.

In his wanderings, the Ugly Duckling comes across a flock of migrating swans, and he wishes to join them but can't because he's too young and can't fly well enough. When winter sets in, a farmer rescues the Ugly Duckling, but the farmer's children and other animals frighten him with their noise and teasing, so again, he flees. He spends a cold and lonely winter hiding in a cave until springtime, when the flock of swans comes to the lake near his hiding place.

When the Ugly Duckling approaches the swans, he's delighted to find that they accept him and treat him like one of them. When he looks at his reflection in the lake, he realizes, to his astonishment, that he's matured into a beautiful swan himself. When the swans fly off from the lake, he spreads his wings and joins them, finally having found a family who accepts him.

Story Analysis

'The Ugly Duckling' is a popular story about personal transformation and self-image. It is sometimes said that Anderson wrote the story based on his own experiences as a boy, being teased for the shape of his nose and facial features and for his social awkwardness. However, like the Ugly Duckling's transformation from plain to beautiful, Anderson grew up to be a world-famous author.

Characteristic of the fairytale story, Anderson's tale shows a character overcoming a challenge and miraculously arriving at a happy ending. The Ugly Duckling's transformation might not be magical in the same way we think of magic in stories like 'Cinderella'; there's no fairy godmother waving a wand to make the Ugly Duckling beautiful, but the magic is in his self-discovery and how much being loved and accepted alters his appearance as much as his natural growing up.

Part of the duckling's struggle comes from the treatment he receives from others, but also from the fact that he simply accepts their perception of him and doesn't realize, until he gets a good look at himself, how truly beautiful and wonderful he is. While he transforms into a beautiful swan on the outside, the real transformation occurs inside him; only when he finds a group who accepts him at face-value does he have the courage to examine his own reflection. The moral of the story teaches us to accept one another no matter how different we might appear.

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Additional Activities

The Ugly Duckling Writing Assignment

Theme Analysis Essay

For this activity, you will be writing a theme analysis essay based on one of the major themes from Hans Christian Andersen's story, The Ugly Duckling. First, determine what you believe is the most powerful theme in the story. Next, form a thesis statement that clearly states what you believe the most powerful theme to be. Here is an example of a thesis statement about theme: Although there are many compelling themes from Hans Christian Anderson's 'The Ugly Duckling,' the most powerful theme relates to the idea of acceptance. After developing your thesis statement, use the below outline to organize your ideas. Once you have finished your outline, write your essay. Make sure to proofread, edit, and revise!

I. Introduction

  • Hook/Attention-Getter
  • Introduce The Ugly Duckling (Include the author and the title)
  • State the most powerful theme (thesis statement)

II. Body Paragraphs

  • Include at least three paragraphs that show how the author expresses the theme
  1. Include direct quotations from the story to support your ideas
  2. Discuss the literary devices (characterization, symbolism, conflicts, setting, imagery, etc.) the author uses to illustrate the theme

III. Conclusion

  • Summarize your main points
  • Re-state your thesis statement
  • Include what you think about the theme
  1. How does this theme affect you?
  2. How does it affect other people?

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