The Bottle Imp
"The Bottle Imp" (1891) is a short story by the Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson usually found in the short story collection Island Nights' Entertainments. It was first published in the New York Herald (February–March 1891) and Black and White London (March–April 1891). In it, the protagonist buys a bottle with an imp inside that grants wishes. However, the bottle is cursed; if the holder dies bearing it, their soul is forfeit to hell.
Keawe, a poor Hawaiian man, buys a strange bottle from a sad, elderly gentleman who credits the bottle with his fortune. He promises that an imp residing in the bottle will also grant Keawe his every desire.
Of course, there is a catch — the bottle must be sold at a loss, i.e. for less than its owner originally paid, or else it will simply return to him. The currency used in the transaction must also be in coin (not paper money or a bank cheque/check). The bottle may not be thrown or given away. All of these commands must be transmitted from each seller to each purchaser. If an owner of the bottle dies without having sold it in the prescribed manner, that person's soul will burn for eternity in Hell.
The bottle was said to have been brought to Earth by the Devil and first purchased by Prester John for millions of dollars; it was owned by Napoleon and Captain James Cook and accounted for their great successes. By the time of the story the price has diminished to fifty dollars.
Keawe buys the bottle and instantly wishes his money to be refunded, to convince himself he has not been suckered. When his pockets fill with coins, he realizes the bottle does indeed have unholy power. He finds he cannot abandon it or sell it for a profit, so he wishes for his heart's desire: a big, fancy mansion on a landed estate. Upon his return to Hawaii, Keawe's wish has been granted, but at a price: his beloved uncle and cousins have been killed in a boating accident, leaving Keawe sole heir to his uncle's fortune. Keawe is horrified, but uses the money to build his house. After explaining the risks, he sells the bottle to a friend.
Keawe lives a happy life, but there is something missing. Walking along the beach one night, he meets a beautiful woman, Kokua. They soon fall in love and become engaged. Keawe's happiness is shattered on the night of his betrothal, when he discovers that he has contracted the then-incurable disease of leprosy. He must give up his house and wife, and live in Kalaupapa—a remote community for lepers—unless he can recover the bottle and use it to cure himself.
Keawe begins this quest by attempting to track down the friend to whom he sold the bottle, but the friend has become suddenly wealthy and left Hawaii. Keawe traces the path of the bottle through many buyers and eventually finds a Haole of Beritania Street, Honolulu. The man of European ancestry has both good and bad news for Keawe: (a) he owns the bottle and is very willing to sell but, but (b) he had only paid two cents for it. Therefore, if Keawe buys it, he will not be able to resell it.
Keawe decides to buy the bottle anyway, for the price of one cent, and indeed cures himself. Now, however, he is understandably despondent: how can he possibly enjoy life, knowing his doom? His wife mistakes his depression for regret at their marriage, and asks for a divorce. Keawe confesses to her his secret.
His wife suggests they sail, with the bottle, to Tahiti; on that archipelago the colonists of French Polynesia use centimes, a coin worth one-fifth of an American cent. This offers a potential recourse for Keawe.
When they arrive, however, the suspicious natives will not touch the cursed bottle. Kokua determines to make a supreme sacrifice to save her husband from his fate. Since, however, she knows he would never sell the bottle to her knowingly, Kokua is forced to bribe an old sailor to buy the bottle for four centimes, with the understanding that she will secretly buy it back for three. Now Keawe is happy, but she carries the curse.
Keawe discovers what his wife has done, and resolves to sacrifice himself for her in the same manner. He arranges for a brutish boatswain to buy the bottle for two centimes, promising he will buy it back for one, thus sealing his doom. However, the drunken sailor refuses to part with it, and is unafraid of the prospect of Hell. "I reckon I'm going anyway," he says.
Keawe returns to his wife, both of them free from the curse, and the reader is encouraged to believe that they live happily ever after.
The theme of the bottle imp can be found in the German legend Spiritus familiaris by the Brothers Grimm as well. At the time of publication in 1891, the currency system of the Kingdom of Hawaii included cent coins that circulated at par with the U.S. penny.
The novel reflects Stevenson's impressions gained during his five-month visit of the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1889. Part of the storyline takes place in the little town Hoʻokena at the Kona coast of the island of Hawaii, which the author visited. In a scene which takes place in Honolulu Stevenson mentions Heinrich Berger, the bandmaster of the Royal Hawaiian Band. The name of Keawe's wife refers to the Hawaiian word kōkua, which means help. In 1889 Stevenson also visited the leper colony on the island of Molokaʻi and met Father Damien there. Therefore he had a first-hand experience from the fate of lepers. Several times Stevenson uses the Hawaiian word Haole, which is the usual term for caucasians, for example describing the last owner of the bottle.
The story could be considered as both a continuation of and a rather light-hearted counterpoint to the theme of selling one's soul to The Devil, manifested in the numerous depictions of Doctor Faust as well as in such stories as "The Devil and Tom Walker" by Washington Irving and "The Devil and Daniel Webster" by Stephen Vincent Benet.
According to Publishers Weekly and School Library Journal (both quoted by Amazon.com) "this tale was originally published, in Samoan, in 1891". The Locus Online Index to Science Fiction similarly states "The Stevenson story was first published in Samoan in 1891, appearing later that year in English." The Project Gutenberg text of the story has a note by Stevenson which says "...the tale has been designed and written for a Polynesian audience..." which also suggests initial publication in Polynesia, not in the United States.
Bottle Imp paradox
The premise of the story creates a logical paradox similar to the unexpected hanging paradox. Clearly no rational person would buy it for one cent as this would make it impossible for it to be sold at a loss. However, it follows that no rational person would buy it for two cents either if it is later to be sold on to a rational person for a loss. By induction, the bottle cannot be sold for any price in a perfectly rational world. And yet, the actions of the people in the story do not seem particularly unwise.
The story shows that the paradox can be resolved by the existence of one of three types of characters:
- Someone who loves the bottle's current owner enough to sacrifice their own soul for that person.
- Someone who believes themselves to be inevitably destined for Hell already.
- Someone who believes they will never die.
Film and television
A silent film based on Stevenson's story was released in 1917. The screenplay was adapted by Charles Maigne. The film was directed by Marshall Neilan, and starred Sessue Hayakawa, Lehua Waipahu, H. Komshi, George Kuwa, Guy Oliver and James Neill.
A West German stop motion animated feature film based on the story and directed by the Diehl Brothers was released in 1952 under the title Der Flaschenteufel.
"The Man in the Bottle", a Season 2 episode of the anthology television series The Twilight Zone, was aired as Episode 38 on October 7, 1960. The episode, written by Rod Serling, contains plot elements - an immortal bottle, a limited number of wishes, and a plot twist - strongly paralleling the Stevenson short story.
An Italian TV adaptation "Il diavolo nella bottiglia" aired on Rai2 on 23 Jun 1981 as part of the horror anthology series "I giochi del diavolo".
The story has inspired a trick-taking game. Originally designed in German by Günter Cornett, it is called Flaschenteufel. It was first published in 1995 by Bambus Spieleverlag, and was re-released by Z-Man Games in 2010 under the name "Bottle Imp."
At the beginning of the game, the token is not attached to any player. Card #19 is the price of the bottle. The rest of the cards are dealt out equally to all players. After hands are dealt, each player discards one card, passes one card left and one card right.
The player to the left of the dealer leads the first trick. Players must play a matching color card if they have one, otherwise they may play any card. If a trick contains no cards lower than the price of the bottle then the highest card takes the trick. If a trick contains a card lower than the price of the bottle, then the highest card lower than the price takes the trick. That player gets the bottle token and the card used to win the trick becomes the new price. Tricks are led by the winner of the previous trick.
Players keep the cards won in tricks. Cards used to "purchase" the bottle are returned to the player who played them when a new price is set. Play continues until all cards are played.
At the end of the round, players who do not have the bottle score the face value of all cards they won. The player who ends the round with the bottle loses the sum of the cards discarded at the beginning of play. Play continues until a player reaches 500 points total. 
The element of the bottle determines much of the strategy in the game: since it is harder to get rid of the bottle at a lower value than at a higher one, players will generally try to get rid of their lowest cards early on in the game when there is a better chance that someone else will play a higher card that is still lower than the bottle's value.
- 85. Spiritus familiaris. In: Jacob und Wilhelm Grimm: Deutsche Sagen. Zwei Bände in einem Band. München 1965, pp. 121-123.
- Robert Louis Stevenson: Travels in Hawaii. edited and with an introduction by A. Grove Day. University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu 1991. ISBN 0-8248-1397-9
- cf. his letter to Charles Baxter (Honolulu, 10th May 1889): "I have just been a week away alone on the lee coast of Hawaii, the only white creature in many miles, riding five and a half hours one day, living with a native ..."
- cf. The Bottle Imp: "Thither he went, because he feared to be alone; and there, among happy faces, walked to and fro, and heard the tunes go up and down, and saw Berger beat the measure, and all the while he heard the flames crackle, and saw the red fire burning in the bottomless pit."
- Hawaiian Dictionaries
- cf. his letter to Sidney Colvin (Honolulu, June 1889): "I am just home after twelve days journey to Molokai, seven of them at the leper settlement, where I can only say that the sight of so much courage, cheerfulness, and devotion strung me too high to mind the infinite pity and horror of the sights."
- vgl. The Bottle Imp: "Now there was an old brutal Haole drinking with him, one that had been a boatswain of a whaler, a runaway, a digger in gold mines, a convict in prisons."
- Quoted on the Amazon sales page for the edition with ISBN 0-395-72101-6
- "Books, Listed by Author". The Locus Index to Science Fiction. Locus Magazine. Retrieved 2009-10-22.
- Ssevenson, Robert Louis (1905). "Island Nights’ Entertainments". Project Gutenberg. Retrieved 2009-10-22.
- R. Sharvy (1983). "The Bottle Imp". Philosophia 12 (3–4): 401. doi:10.1007/BF02380917.
Sorensen calls this "Sharvey’s Bottle Imp paradox" or "Sharvey’s paradox", see
- Sorensen, Roy A. (1986). "The Bottle Imp and the Prediction paradox". Philosophia 15 (4): 421–424. doi:10.1007/BF02380232. ISSN 0048-3893.
- Sorensen, Roy A. (1987). "The bottle imp and the prediction paradox, II". Philosophia 17 (3): 351–354. doi:10.1007/BF02455056. ISSN 0048-3893.
- Sorensen, Roy A. (October 1988). "Blindspotting and Choice Variations of the Prediction Paradox". American Philosophical Quarterly (University of Illinois Press) 23 (4): 337–352. ISSN 2152-1123. JSTOR 20014159.
- "International Movie Database". Retrieved 2008-07-31.
- "Flaschenteufel". BoardGameGeek. Retrieved 2007-10-11.
- "Bottle Imp". Z-Man Games. Retrieved 2010-09-01.
- firstname.lastname@example.org (Tom Vasel) (2004-09-12). "The Bottle Imp". rec.games.board. Web link. Retrieved 2007-10-12.
- Huber, Joe. "Der Flaschenteufel Review". The Games Journal. Retrieved 2007-10-12.
|Wikisource has original text related to this article:|
|Wikisource has original text related to this article:|
- Island Nights' Entertainments by Robert Louis Stevenson at Project Gutenberg
- Flaschenteufel at BoardGameGeek
- The Bottle Imp title listing at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database