I read Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Bottle Imp” right after I finished rereading Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. It is a short story included in my copy of this infamous gothic novella, and is one that most certainly deserves a review.
A Bit of Context
Title: “The Bottle Imp”
Author: Robert Louis Stevenson.
Publication: 1891, New York Herald.
My Edition: 2012, Penguin.
Length: 31 pages.
“The Bottle Imp” was published in 1891, a few years after Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Centred around the islands of Hawaii, the story was inevitably inspired by Stevenson’s five-month visit to the islands.
It offers an original perspective on a story that has been retold many times: the selling of one’s soul to the devil. Other stories that have addressed this concept include Thomas Nashe’s Pierce Penniless, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, and even some of the tales by the Grimm brothers.
*** The next two sections of this review may contain some spoilers. If you’re looking for a spoiler-free review, then I suggest that you skip to the “My Conclusion” section of this post! ***
The story of “The Bottle Imp” follows the journey of Keawe, a young Hawaiian sailor. He is walking through a rich neighbourhood, admiring the houses around him, when an elderly man comes out to talk to him. He tells Keawe that he can have a house like his if he buys a particular bottle from him.
This is the bottle imp, and it is offered to Keawe for fifty dollars. Keawe cannot understand why this man would wish to rid himself of the imp when it can grant him anything that he desires. Yet the man tells him that whoever dies with the imp still in their possession will be sent straight to hell. He cannot simply give it away, either; anyone wishing to get rid of the imp must sell it for a smaller amount than that which they paid for it. It sounds complicated, but the imp’s rules become much more straightforward when reading the story.
So, Keawe buys the imp and uses it to build a grand mansion for himself. Once this is built, he decides not to be greedy and so sells the imp to his friend who, in turn, uses the power of the imp before selling it on once more. Now free of the imp but living a life of luxury, Keawe feels very fortunate. Then, one day, he meets the beautiful Kokua, and after a shockingly short conversation, Keawe asks Kokua to marry him.
Everything seems to have worked out perfectly for Keawe. He returns home from his meeting with Kokua feeling desperately happy, but then, relaxing at home, he discovers something terrible. Keawe’s skin has become strange and unfamiliar. There is only one explanation for this change, and this is that he has leprosy.
Now infected with the disease, Keawe realises that he cannot marry Kokua. He struggles with this realisation for a while, before he comes up with a solution: he needs to retrieve the bottle imp and wish away his illness. He does just this and manages to cure himself, but there’s a problem: Keawe now owns the bottle imp again, and it has been sold many, many times since he first owned it, and he purchased it for a single penny. This means that he cannot sell it on again, because there is no lower price. Keawe is the last owner and, as a result, he will spend an eternity in hell.
The rest of the story is one of pure sacrifice. Keawe and Kokua fight over who should suffer the price of the imp and desperately seek a solution. It’s a wonderful tale, and has an extremely satisfying ending.
Going Deeper into the Story…
For a short story, there’s a lot going on in “The Bottle Imp”. It’s full of action, but nevertheless considers some important contemporary issues, including cultural differences and a structural use of oppositions.
The Victorian Period was a time of exploration. With the invention of steam power, ships were able to take people further and further abroad at a much faster speed. The world had suddenly become much larger as new regions were being mapped out and made known to the British public. A rise in industrial trade also meant that different cultures were constantly coming into contact with one another. Yet with new discoveries and cultural relationships, there also came new fears.
You may have heard me mention the phrase, “the foreign other” before. If you’re not familiar with this term, it basically refers to a person from a foreign culture who, because of their background, is feared. Perhaps the most famous example of this is Count Dracula, the Transylvanian aristocrat who decides to move to England. Dracula demonises the Count because he comes from a place that the British public are not familiar with.
Well, “The Bottle Imp” seems to invert these fears. By giving a voice to a Hawaiian sailor, Stevenson normalises cultural differences, allowing his readers to understand foreign practices. It therefore seems that, unlike Dracula, “The Bottle Imp” glorifies the relationships Britain had begun to forge with foreign countries.
Yet there is another side to this way of looking at the story; when Keawe uses the imp to build his house, it is filled with many material items that are unfamiliar to him, but would have already been known to Stevenson’s readers. In some respects, this may suggest that Stevenson is likening the demonic bottle imp to global trade; like the imp, it may, at first seem wonderful, but there is always a price to pay.
As for the knick-knacks, they were extraordinary fine; chiming clocks and musical boxes, little men with nodding heads, books filled with pictures, weapons of price from all quarters of the world, and the most elegant puzzles to entertain the leisure of a solitary man.
In many gothic stories (such as Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde), there is a certain amount of duality or doubling. In Frankenstein, this takes the form of the relationship between the monster and his creature. In “The Bottle Imp”, however, it is demonstrated through oppositions. There are constant dualities in this story, such as good and evil, love and war, and greed and restraint.
This was the wooing of Keawe; things had gone quickly; but so an arrow goes, and the ball of a rifle swifter still, and yet both may strike the target.
For me, this really represents the nature of the bottle imp, because although it can grant its owner anything they wish, children’s stories have taught us that wishes always have a price. It all comes down to that ultimate, repeated question: is it worth it? Are your deepest desires worth selling your soul? Is an eternity spent in hell worth it, if you can have one perfect life?
When I reviewed Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, I mentioned how slow the pace of Stevenson’s writing was, and suggested that the novel was only really made famous by its concluding chapters. I stand by this opinion but must admit that “The Bottle Imp” is written in a completely different style. In this story, Stevenson’s sentences are simplified, and are far less descriptive, making it extremely enjoyable.
I would honestly have to say that “The Bottle Imp” is the best short story that I have ever read, considering both its content, and the way in which it is written. It’s not at all like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in that, although it has gothic aspects to it, it’s a more light-hearted tale. It’s essentially a fantasy story set in the real world, although it lends itself more to fantasy perhaps because Stevenson’s audience would have found the Hawaiian islands at least semi-fictional.
It offers something for everyone, containing romance, magic, and a lot of mystery. Although its characters are few, they are well developed, and I found it easy to relate to Keawe. “The Bottle Imp” is a timeless tale that I can certainly recommend.
Thank you so much for reading this review. You can click here to check out an A-Z list of all of my reviews (so far)!