Dylan Ravenfox

© 2010

Otherness has no other. ~Yoineh Mier

The story that begins, “It was so lovely out in the country—it was summer!”  affects playful cheer and the inflected innocent simplicity of a child. But if it does so,  then there also leers a sneering tone in which the tale can be read which tastes within those words an inflection of the most acrid satire, and spiteful lambasting. The parable argues that ‘beauty itself’ makes readable (both sufferable, enjoyable, and discernable) and is made readable only by a narrative of exorbitant torment and shameless neglect. Indeed, the mediator of readability, our narrator, embodies precisely the  anamorphic shift that will focus this essay.  As an analogy, take the surface of the pool gazed upon by Narcissus. Like the surface, the narrator both reflects and distorts. Invoking this figure helps to distinguish between two readings of beauty in The Ugly Duckling, one analogous to Narcissus “falling for” his own image, and one analogous to his fragmenting distortion as perceived by a gaze which brings its focus to the surface of the mirror itself. The narrator thus embodies the amorphism of a pun, now playfully and honestly relating as a child under the burdocks, now vindictively punishing and kicking a duck.  Beauty thus, as presented by this duplicitous narrative voice, plays a double role as that made bright, glimmering and lovely as a sort of redeeming centerpiece brought into contrast by the tragedy of ugliness it predicates upon, that which can only provide a cheap sense of false resolution and a fleeting veil to cover the more substantial experience of the tale’s monstrous, revolting cruelty. How is it that we begin the story with beauty pastoral and lovely, and end up with the same body of text staging beauty as a mere dissemblance of sad and gluttonous hatred?

Beauty, in the tale, is most apparently legible within the figure of the swan. Perhaps then, it is in the figure of the swan that one should be most suspicious of beauty, for where it is most clear, I would argue, is where we as readers tend to ‘fall’. The surface of the self-reflecting puddle too, gets fallen for where most clear, the apparatus of the mirror working best while invisible. So then, why do we believe so relentlessly in the beauty of the swan?  One cannot credit some inherent or universal set features in the swan which make him beautiful. If there were such universality, would not the attributes be recognized in the duckling even while wrongly named? And yet, the beauty in the aftermath of the duck’s metamorphosis remains so unmistakable, so clear by its means of presentation, that one can almost taste it. But from whence such pleasure?  One means through which the signification of beauty is made discernable in the concluding passage of the story is through the children illustrated by the tale’s end, here figured as an audience for the swans, cheering, clapping, admiring. The child figured as an observer cannot but elicit the role of the narrator, as suggested by the various (mis)classification of the story as children’s literature by Disney and others).

But the narrator’s brutality is not to be underestimated. The childish inflection through which beauty in the allegory obtains performs a divided role that both allows for a readerly identification with the young protagonist and also somehow furnishes a kind of alienation from the violence inflicted upon him. While the rhymes and simplicity of the sentence, “The ducks bit him, the chickens nipped him, and the girl who fed the animals kicked him” (161),  might elicit youthful blamelessness, it also estranges from the reader a suffering that is difficult even to imagine. To fall for such inflection enables a kind of absolution, does it not? But then, if such childish innocence does exonerate the child, narrator, and/or reader, it also bears the potential to implicate all three in its formation. Does not the ‘foul’ swoop of the girl’s leg suggest that the innocence of the child-like inflection might be remotely misleading? Does not the identification betray in itself a more sinister function here? Distraction then, might provide a good description of beauty in The Ugly Duckling, the beauty which facilitates an absurd acceptance in the sentence at the end of the tale which states, “He felt immensely happy to have gone through all his hardship and suffering” (166).  How could such a sentence be read with seriousness?  It is as if the incarnation of the swan, by rendering the title “Ugly Duckling” into a false name, somehow makes unreal the anguish inflicted upon the duckling in a gesture of redemptive effacement.

How is it that the half a page or so of text that comprises the conclusion of the piece is somehow able to provoke any sense of relief or resolution? Why do the final swan-paragraphs staging beauty validate the eight duckling-pages staging ugliness?  I’d like to suggest that ultimately these questions lead to readerly implication respecting the contradictory constructions of the narrator’s  intonation.  If the narrator of the story can be said to participate in a kind of sadism then so can the story’s readership.  At one point the narrator relates the denigrations of the duckling’s fellow fowl:

“But he’s so big and strange looking,” the duck who’d bit him replied. “It           just makes you want to pick on him.” (160)

It is revealing that the “you” of this sentence is really a “me”. The sentence is an invitation or even insistence that the reader participate in the desire of those words under the self-disseminating guise of childishly innocent fictional characterization. Perhaps such complicity feels like a leap, but then it would, if the function of beauty in the tale is to distract us from its foundation in its own more substantially defined  other, ugliness. Ugliness, in the story, is rooted in abuse, and contextually defined over and over again throughout the narrative as that which provokes hatred, neglect, and nominalization. Beauty, on the other hand, seems rooted within arbitrary discriminations and  juvenile spectatorship. In short, beauty is like a lilly that is not beautiful ‘in itself’, but because the putrid sea of shit it grows out of makes it bright and sweet. It is enabled by a thin selection of text framing the misery and hardship “much too sad to describe”(165) described between “It was so lovely out in the country” (155), and “when I was the Ugly Duckling” (167).

At this point, the allegory begs the question I think: Why is the trauma of The Ugly Duckling so easy to stomach? Perhaps it is more relevant than it might seem, that any given reader of this story is likely to have sunk his or her own teeth into the body of a duck sometime in the not too distant past, an act which roots readerly identification with “the duck who’d bit him” in the narrative of personal, bodily experience. I suspect somehow, that it is this closeness with the biter of The Ugly Duckling, rather than fictional distance, which makes sadistic identification difficult to admit or even see, even while it remains implicitly an integral component of the story.

Beauty then, is what we look at in the story while looking through the narrator’s vindictive eyes. By rendering the duckling’s name false via substitution,  the story allows the word ugly to become as false as the word duckling. But if the duckling has been a swan all along, it has still been an ugly swan all along. Read this way, the swan’s beauty is only that which hides from its own contextual foundations, thus producing the effect of transcendent or “natural” beauty established in seemingly un-coded truth. Could it be even, that the aura of the swan glows brightly solely in its isolation from context, its vain-glorious brightness made legible only by the darkness cloaking the suffering which lurks beneath its circumstance? Narcissus retracts his penetrating gaze upon the surface of the pool, as if bringing it closer to himself,  and then sees only surface tension and his image fractured and distorted.  Thus the swan’s beauty fragments into a rather disgraceful veil as we pull back our own gaze,  leaving the implicit counterpart of The Ugly Duckling (The Beautiful Swan) about as false and exoticized as the title “foie-gras”, which invites consumers to hide from themselves, behind a veil of fine French coinage, their own participation in an act of utter brutality, even as they coerce it down their gullets.

Works Cited and Consulted

Anderson, Hans Christian. “The Ugly Duckling” 1843. Trans. Diana Crone Frank and Jeffrey Frank. The Stories of Hans Christian Anderson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003.

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