Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Like fairy stories and the tales from Alf layla wa-layla (fifteenth century; The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, 1706-1708) that it resembles, “The Bottle Imp” posits a clear contrast between good and evil, asserts the power of love and sacrifice in overcoming evil, and rewards its good characters with a lifetime of continuing happiness.

Keawe rather innocently entangles himself with evil because he is so deeply impressed by the opulent house in San Francisco, but once he buys the bottle—without quite realizing that he has done so—he finds it difficult to disentangle himself from its evil. The fact that his uncle and cousin die to leave him the land on which he builds his house and the coincidence that the cost of this house is exactly the sum that his uncle leaves him suggest that the evil imp in the bottle exacts a high price for his favors, but Robert Louis Stevenson does not insist on this point as the story develops.

Having relied on the imp for his house, Keawe, perhaps naturally, seeks his help in curing his leprosy, but this time an important new motive has been added: Keawe would willingly resign himself to exile in the leper colony at Molokai if it were not for his love of Kokua. The importance of love in opposition to evil is henceforth the main theme of the story.

In Tahiti, Kokua, mindful that Keawe bought the bottle the second time because of his love for her, buys the bottle herself, willing to sacrifice her own soul for Keawe. When Keawe discovers what she has done, he resolves to purchase the bottle a third time to save his wife. This time, it is important to note, he is motivated by awareness of her sacrifice rather than by delight in her beauty; his infatuation seems to have deepened into a nobler love.

Although the lovers overcome the evil of the imp, Stevenson throughout the story emphasizes the stark reality of evil. Lopaka and Keawe are figuratively “turned to stone” by the sight of the imp, and both Keawe and Kokua are cast in such despair by the prospect of an eternity in hell that they are unable to enjoy the love for which they have sacrificed themselves.