The luck of the draw this week gave me Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story, “The Bottle Imp”, another “sell your soul to the devil” story. It has some similarities to Oscar Wilde’s “The Fisherman and His Soul” which I read a few weeks ago. Stevenson’s story is not as wordy as Wilde’s but it is longer than most of the short stories I’ve read.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that this story takes place in Hawaii. Between Jack London, Joseph Conrad and Herman Melville, I’ve grown to enjoy stories from the South Seas set in the mid nineteenth century. Stevenson’s novel Treasure Island is on my agenda sometime in the near future.
The imp in the bottle grants wishes to whoever owns him; however, if the owner of the bottle dies while still in possession of the bottle imp, he spends the afterlife in eternal damnation. If the owner sells the bottle imp, he must do so at a loss – selling it for less than he paid for it. If he attempts to gain a profit from the sale, the bottle imp returns to him.
At the beginning of the story, I found these “rules” governing the bottle imp somewhat complicated. Keawe uses the bottle to build an expensive house, be healed of a dreaded disease and to gain the love of his life, Kokua. He passes the bottle around to a few friends, but ultimately it ends up back in his hands. The aspect of the story that I enjoyed the most came as the bottle imp gradually decreased in value – as it would given its rules. Keawe and Kokua didn’t question what might happen when the value of the bottle imp dropped below the lowest denomination of cash.
The story asks the same question most of these “sell your soul to the devil” stories ask. What price is one willing to pay for the granting of their deepest desires? This story, though, ends with a small, but humorous, twist. This is another story I found in Stories and Poems For Highly Intelligent Children of All Ages collected by Harold Bloom.