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On Ducklings and Swans

December 4, 2014

In 1868, literary critic Georg Brandes asked Hans Christian Anderson whether he would ever write his autobiography. The author replied, saying he already had:


There was once a little duckling that looked nothing like its fluffy yellow siblings. It was ‘big and ugly,’ and a deplorable shade of gray. Wherever it went, it was mocked or shunned. ‘Why are you so different from the others?’ his mother sighed. So one day the ugly little duckling left.


Winter was lonely and cold, but when spring came the little bird had turned into a majestic swan. It found a flock of its own. And when it heard some little children call it ‘the most beautiful of all,’ it cried of joy.



Contrary to popular belief, Anderson’s story is not an uplifting children’s tale on inner beauty and personal transformation. ‘The Ugly Duckling’ is a treatise on the social relativism of normality.


If to be normal is to conform to a usual, typical, or expected standard, then normality is a state of being that is within the limits of what is normal. In mathematics, these limits are easily defined as the range within one standard deviation of the Gaussian bell curve; the calculated average. In sociology, the Durkheim model considers a behavior normal insofar as it is replicated in the majority of surrounding cases. In contrast, outlying behavior is considered abnormal. And if normality is good, then abnormality is bad.


Except how do you calculate a norm from a data set of exceptions? The real world is more complex than a two-dimensional chalkboard, larger than the duck pond, and its history spans the timeframe of infinite bedtime stories. People, time, places, and situations are constantly changing, so are societal standards and norms; self-immolation, slavery, incest, cannibalism, idolatry, polygamy, genocide, genital mutilation, and torture are just a few colorful highlights of the evolutionary history of normality.


And what of our own modern understanding of normality? How will future generations judge us for first world obesity and third world malnutrition, environmental degradation and resource depletion, wars of and on terror, government surveillance, deficit spending, capital punishment, industrial meat production , institutionalization of the elderly, and hunting for sport?



'Normal is an illusion. What is normal for the spider is chaos for the fly.'

– Charles Addams


Everything is relative, and there are no norms. December is winter in Canada and summer in Argentina. A cow is sacred in India and lunch in the United States. Heaven is up in church and East in a Mayan temple.


Normality is just another word for consensus: 'If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.' Normality meant food rations and queues in the former Soviet Union. Reserved bus seats for white citizens in Alabama. Checkpoints and power cuts during the Lebanese civil war. There is a danger in allowing consensus to define us.


If travel, globalization, and education have taught us anything, it is that resigning ourselves to normality is mediocre. The greatest historical achievements were made not by the average, but by those who dared to step out of the confines of consensus and demand more of themselves and of life. How different our world would look if they had not. If they had chosen the path of least resistance. If the ugly duckling had stayed.


There is a point in the beginning of Anderson’s tale where the little ducklings hatch out of their eggs and look out of the nest for the first time. 'How large the world is,' they say, to which their mother replies:


'Do you imagine this is the whole world? Wait till you have seen the garden.'


No one was ever remembered for being normal.



[1] Bredsdorff, Elias (1975). Hans Christian Andersen: The Story of his Life and Work 1805-75. Phaidon. ISBN 0-7148-1636-1.

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