January 19, 2024

#08-378: The Bottle Imp

Keawe is out of spirits (Wikimedia)

Note: This story throws some twists into the old "genie in a lamp" motif. Fascinating!

Get Ready: The age-old question: if you could have anything, what would you wish for? And at what cost?

"The Bottle Imp" is a short story by Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson.

Keawe, a poor native of Hawaii, buys a strange bottle from a rich old white man in San Francisco. It has an imp inside which will grant wishes, like a genie in a lamp. (The imp is only glimpsed once, briefly, in response to a wish.)

The bottle, though seemingly made of glass, is unbreakable, and it comes with conditions: if the owner dies without selling the bottle--that is, it is still his possession--his soul will burn in hell forever. And he can only sell it for less than he paid for it; he cannot make a profit. Furthermore, he must make full disclosure of these conditions to any potential buyer.

Keawe is happy to get the bottle for a mere $50, and back in Hawaii he builds his dream house. But like all magic items, the bottle is tricky: the money only comes to him because a beloved uncle and cousins die in a boating accident, and he inherits his uncle's fortune.

He also meets and marries a beautiful woman named Kokua. Having everything he wants, he sells the bottle to avoid going to hell.

One day, though, he sees a spot on his skin: he has leprosy. He seeks out the bottle to buy it back and cure the disease, but by this time--after changing hands several times--it sells for only one cent. That means if he buys it back, he can never turn it around, for there is no coin smaller than a cent.

He buys it anyway--for love! The leprosy is gone, but he becomes despondent about being damned, and Kokua notices. So Keawe explains the problem, and the clever girl points out that in Tahiti, there are centimes, coins worth less than one cent.

They use the bottle's powers to go to Tahiti, but no one wants to buy the suspicious bottle. Kokua bribes an old man to buy it for four centimes--five centimes equals one American cent--and buys it back from him for three. She secretly has saved her husband, but she now carries the curse.

Keawe learns what she has done, and tries the same trick: he gets a brutish sailor to buy the bottle for two centimes, planning to buy it back for one. But the sailor likes the power the bottle gives him, and refuses to sell. He is not afraid of dying with the bottle, he says, because he's going to hell anyway!

Free of the curse, Keawe and Kokua live on in their beautiful house in Hawaii.


Practice: Match the term to its definition:

Term Definition
  1. bribes
  2. brutish
  3. cent
  4. changing hands
  5. curse
  6. despondent
  7. imp
  8. leprosy
  9. mere
  10. turn it around
  1. a supernatural cause of misfortune
  2. pays to do something wrong
  3. a serious skin disease
  4. feeling hopeless
  5. resell it
  6. no more than
  7. 1/100 of a dollar
  8. being sold
  9. a little devil
  10. uncivilized; acting like an animal

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for January 19, 2024

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. b; 2. j; 3. g; 4. h; 5. a; 6. d; 7. i; 8. c; 9. f; 10. e