First, I note a few surface details.
- Rising action – Keawe buys the imp and later sells it
- Crisis – Keawe again buys the imp although he doubts he can sell it
- Resolution – a sailor buys the imp from Keawe
The story centers on possession of the imp (primarily by Keawe, as noted above). The full progression of ownership follows:
- Old man
- Keawe's friend
- Unspecified others
- Keawe (attempted; sailor refused)
The motivations of the owners varies:
- Old man, Keawe (first), Keawe’s friend, others – reward
- Keawe (second) – reward
- Kokua –love
- Sailor – reward
- Keawe (attempted) – love
Note the relationship between these motives and the story arc. Reward drives Keawe’s first two purchases (rising action, crisis), but love drives the third (before resolution). Observe also the twin kinds of reward compelling the early purchases. The first reward: obtaining prosperity; the second reward: preserving prosperity (including Kokua).
The story’s specifics (ownership and motivation) stage these events:
- Desire can reward (Keawe seeks prosperity and love and is satisfied.)
- Desire can curse (In his quest, Keawe uses the imp.)
- Reward brings uncertainty (Banishment threatens all Keawe’s gains.)
- Love absorbs curse (Kokua buys imp from Keawe.)
- Curse will destroy (Someone must bear imp’s damnation.)
These dichotomies follow:
- Reward is tarnished without the curse (by uncertainty) or with the curse (by destruction).
- One can avoid the curse but not uncertainty.+
- Love can deliver from the curse but cannot escape from the curse.
(+Note: This is because Stevenson portrays Keawe’s desire as a constant from the story’s beginning. His unavoidable desire leads him to navigate the other events of the story.)
Two final questions:
- Does Stevenson present an ideal choice to resolve the story’s dichotomies?
- Does the imp simply represent the curse or something more?
First, would Stevenson moralize? I presume the possibility, considering his dramatic shift from a Victorian upbringing to a life of travel and ensuing love of the islander lifestyle (the backdrop for the short story). First, recall the two motives (reward or love) and the consistent negative conseqeunces (uncertainty, curse, destruction). All of these occurred both with or without a connection to the imp. Keawe pursued the good life before meeting the imp’s owner and in the period of freedom from its grasp. Likewise, his love for Kokua began without connection to the imp and continued long after. I summarize all these possible combinations in the following chart:
1. Without imp: uncertainty
2. With imp: curse
3. Toward the cursed: destruction
4. Toward the uncursed: no destruction
The story progresses from a focus on reward (first half) to a focus on love (second half). The last option (love without destruction) is ideal; every other option entails some loss. Even Kokua’s and Keawe’s choices to love each other by taking back the curse is bittersweet. Each one’s sacrifice removes the other’s greatest source of happiness, an end that could have been avoided if Keawe had never bought the imp. The implied lesson? Avoid choices now that will sabotage love’s good intentions later.
The surprise ending may add an additional message. If the story warns against complicating love, why does it provide an escape hatch, the drunken sailor who accepts damnation and buys the bottle? Stevenson could simply be softening the blow of his cautionary tale. If so, why did he include the elaborate curse that necessitated such an ending? I think the injection of a supernatural temptation portrays real life: wild possibilities coupled with high consequences. The ending modifies the imaginary scenario to convey another reality: though love cannot erase a damning past, somehow, escape is possible.
If the supernatural elements comment on life, the imp itself may also have a specific meaning. The unusual law of the imp (sell for less or receive damnation) makes it a constantly growing threat. Its sinister descriptions (“dark,” “fiery,” etc) and concealed evil (glancing in the bottle stuns the owner with horror) also portray the imp as a potent living force. Perhaps Stevenson portrays imperfection and evil in humanity as this palpable reality, present in the world and available as a means of man’s advancement and destruction. As an advocate of Semoan rights who lived in the islands during multiple colonial power-struggles, he vividly observed evil’s corrupting power. He knew that the world often suffers when people allow the end to justify the means. And when those people are us—the otherwise kind-hearted Keawes—Stevenson knew that the fiend within us doesn’t have to win in the end.