bottle imp

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 Herald New York (Feb-March 1891) and Black and White London (March-April 1891).


The story is about a working class native of Hawaii, Keawe, who buys a strange bottle from a sad, elderly gentleman who credits the bottle with his wealth and fortune, and promises the imp in the bottle will also grant Keawe his every wish and 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 currency or check). The bottle may not be thrown or given away. 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 but each sold it. At the time of the story the price has diminished to eighty dollars, and declines rapidly to a matter of pennies.

Keawe buys the bottle and instantly wishes his money to be refunded, to convince himself he hadn't 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. He then sells the bottle to a friend (after explaining the risks) and returns to Hawaii.

Upon his return, 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.

Keawe lives a happy life, but there is something missing. Walking along the beach one night, he meets a beautiful woman. 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 Chinese Evil" (leprosy) in his travels. He must give up his house and wife, and live in the caves with the other lepers. Unless...

Keawe tries to track down the friend to whom he sold the bottle, but the friend has become suddenly wealthy and left Hawaii. Keawe eventually finds the bottle, but the owner has bad news: he only paid two cents for it. If Keawe buys it for one, he won't be able to resell it.

Keawe decides to buy the bottle, and wishes himself clean. But now he is 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 to Tahiti, where the colonists of French Polynesia use centimes, a coin worth one-fifth of an American cent. When they arrive, however, the suspicious natives won't touch the cursed bottle. Keawe's wife decides to bribe an old sailor to buy the bottle for four centimes, and she will secretly buy it back for three. But now she carries the curse.

Keawe discovers what his wife has done, so he asks a brutish boatswain to buy the bottle for two centimes, and he will buy it back for one, thus sealing his doom. However, when Keawe goes to retrieve the bottle, the sailor threatens to bash in his head. There's no way he's giving up the magic wishing bottle.

Keawe warns the sailor that he'll go to hell if he keeps the bottle, but the sailor never expected to go anywhere else. Keawe returns to his wife, finally free from the curse.

Historical and cultural background

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 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.

Bottle Imp paradox

The premise of the story creates a paradox: what is the lowest price the bottle can be sold for?

Clearly buying it for one cent would make it impossible for it to be sold at a loss. It follows that this makes it impossible to be sold for two cents if it is later to be sold on for a loss and the buyer is given full disclosure of the details of the transaction and its ramifications. The same argument makes it impossible to be sold for three cents, or four cents, or indeed any finite amount. On the other hand, if you as a typical logical person buy it for $50, you should be able to find another typical logical person to buy it for $49.99, they in turn should be able to sell it for one cent less, and so on.

The story addresses the paradox by re-framing the dilemma as a different problem altogether: how much must one love another in order to be willing to sacrifice one's own soul for that person? Other possible resolutions of the paradox considered by the characters include:

  • A US cent isn't the lowest price in coin that the bottle can have. Different countries have different coinage, some of which contains denominations valued below one cent US. In the story, this method is used, temporarily staving off the inevitable. Four centimes in Tahiti was worth less than one cent in Hawaii, allowing further transactions.
  • Someone can buy the bottle without expecting to sell it, if they either believe themselves to be inevitably destined for Hell or if they believe the bottle to be worth eternal damnation. Therefore, one might buy the bottle in the expectation of meeting someone who fits one of the two criteria, or if they themselves meet one or both.

Of course, if the bottle truly grants any wish, then the most recent possessor of the bottle could simply wish a new, smaller denomination of coin currency into existence, explain this process to any prospective buyer, and sell it for some fraction of the price they paid. This process could be repeated forever, with continuously diminishing values of currency.


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.

Card Game

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.


The game is played with a bottle token and a proprietary deck of thirty-seven cards with a total ordering from 1 to 37. Suits are not significant and there is no trump.

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. 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.

The Bottle Imp ezine

The Association for Scottish Literary Studies (ASLS) produces a free biannual ezine on classic and contemporary Scottish literature called The Bottle Imp, which takes its name from Robert Louis Stevenson's short story. The first issue was published in May 2007.

See also


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