"The Bottle Imp" by Robert Louis Stevenson (1891)

"The Bottle Imp", first published in 1891, is one of the three stories included in Robert Louis Stevenson's collection Island Nights' Entertainments, also known as South Sea Tales. Robert Louis Stevenson's 'The Bottle Imp'All of the stories take place in various locales in the South Seas, influenced by Stevenson's travels of the area that were intended to improve his health. "The Bottle Imp" is set mostly in Hawaii and Stevenson incorporates some local dialect into the story: Kokua's name means "help" and he refers to white people as Haoles several times.

Stevenson's treatment of his island characters surprised me. I didn't consider his characterization of these Hawaiian natives any different from how he might characterize British ones. Stevenson neither simplifies nor overly exoticizes his characters, though one might consider whether Stevenson chose to set this story in "exotic" lands due to its mystical nature. However, the Haoles in the story believe the stories about the bottle just as readily as any of the people of the South Seas. Kokua and Keawe also have an understanding of outside cultures and colonization of nearby islands.

The story revolves around the hangman paradox, playing out specifically in this case as what is the lowest price the bottle can be sold for? Obviously, the bottle won't be bought at the price of one cent because the person who buys it cannot sell it at a loss, and one would assume the same for the price of two cents. That argument can be followed to suggest that the bottle cannot be sold at any finite price; however, a logical person could also conclude that if someone purchased the bottle for $50 then the person could surely find someone willing to purchase the bottle for an amount less than $50.

The Wikipedia entry about Stevenson mentions that he fell out of favor with the twentieth-century literary elite, such as Leonard and Virginia Woolf, who relegated him to second-class literary status as a writer of children's literature and horror stories. I can see why the Woolfs and other modernists might not think much of Stevenson. The modernists' concern lies in making the internal experiential through experimental literary techniques such as stream-of-consciousness writing and interior monologue. Oftentimes, their characters' psychic reality is more important than their actual surroundings. Stevenson writes plainly, but he effectively explores human psychology through the twists and turns of the plot rather than a deep exploration of characters' psyches. Keawe and Kokua are thinly drawn, and they act more as placeholders on which the reader may project themselves. I must say that the story ended differently than I expected. I thought Stevenson would come to some "Gift of the Magi" conclusion, so I, like Keawe, was surprised that someone would be willing to keep the bottle despite the threat of an unpleasant afterlife.