The ugly duckling gets a raw deal: he's actually a baby swan, but nobody knows that, so everyone thinks he's the ugliest duckling to ever walk the earth. The other ducks' abuse of the ugly duckling runs the gamut from your prototypical playground name-calling to some pretty harsh butt-kickings:
The poor little duckling, who had been the last to hatch and was so ugly, was bitten and pushed and made fun of both by the hens and by the other ducks. (27.26)
Even Andersen seems cool with referring to our protagonist as "the ugly duckling," so what's a baby swan-that-everyone-thinks-is-a-duck to do?
Well, the ugly duckling puts up with this teenage bullying for a while. But then he runs away: "All he wanted was to be allowed to swim among the reeds and drink a little water when he was thirsty" (27.35). Poor guy! The ugly duckling just wants the basics: food, water, freedom to swim wherever he wants, and some quality Me Time.
But don't shed too many tears for this little man, for he discovers his soul-kindred soon enough. The first time the "duckling" gets a glimpse of some swans, he feels a connection with them:
He did not know the name of those birds or where they were going, and yet he felt that he loved them as he had never loved any other creatures. He did not envy them. It did not even occur to him to wish that he were so handsome himself. (27.66)
And that's the ugly duckling for ya. As much as he's mocked by the Duck Bully Brigade for being different, it doesn't even occur to him to wish he were a prettier-looking bird. He's just all, "Hey, look at those beautiful birds over there! I want to hug them and squish them and love them forever."
After suffering a winter on his own, almost freezing to death, our ugly duckling realizes his little baby wings have matured into big boy wings. So when he sees those swans again, he thinks to himself: "I shall fly over to them, those royal birds! And they can hack me to death because I, who am so ugly, dare to approach them!" (27.73). Um, we here at Shmoop do not think that anyone should be hacked to death just for trying to hang out with the pretty, popular crowd. That is, in fact, decidedly uncool.
But as he gets ready to sacrifice himself to the Swan Hoard of Stunning Gorgeousness, he catches his reflection in the water and sees something unexpected. "Dude!" he thinks. Well, no, actually he realizes, "He was no longer an awkward, clumsy, gray bird, so ungainly and so ugly. He was a swan!" (27.75).
And, unsurprisingly all the other swans accept him as one of their own. Cuz all living things like other things that look like them, we guess? You've have to admit, that's not really the best moral to derive from this story. "The Ugly Duckling" can end up sounding like one of those movies about a nerdy, keeps-to-herself teenager who gets a makeover and suddenly becomes part of the "in" crowd.
Except, in movies, it's so totally obvious that the nerdy teenager was a hottie all along, she just started out wearing big glasses and baggy clothes. And those girls' transformations also usually involve some painful realization about how their newfound popularity has also made them into jerkier, snottier people (a la Mean Girls).
But luckily for our duckling, being a beautiful swan doesn't go to his head. "He was too happy, but not proud, for a kind heart can never be proud" (27.80). Kindness > arrogance. So we're not too sure we endorse the apparent moral of this story, but we are happy that the ugly duckling finally gets to feel like he fits in.