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The Bottle Imp - an allegory of the greater-fool principle.
Old 02-19-2009, 03:42 PM   #1
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The Bottle Imp - an allegory of the greater-fool principle.

Has anyone read a short story called "The Bottle Imp" by Robert Louis Stevenson?

It's a very interesting and charming story. I had read it when I was very young and was gravely impressed by it.

A man is offered for purchase an ancient bottle that contains an imp, which will grant any wish, e.g., bestow any amount of wealth on its owner. It was said to have been created by the devil himself and that it had been owned by many great men including Napoleon.

Strangely, the bottle is selling for a very modest amount of money that is at odds with its potential to create fantastic wealth. But it seems there are a few catches. One is that if you become greedy and take too great advantage of the bottle, the benefits seem to come at some cursed fate to oneself or those around you (similar to The Monkey's Paw). Another is that, if you die with the bottle in your possession, you are doomed to hell. Owning it thus comes with some considerable dread.

But the central, most curious and extremely ingenious catch is that the bottle must be sold for legal tender that is less than what it was purchased for! Over the years, the cost of the bottle, which was originally purchased for an enormous fortune, had slowly and irrevocably diminished. This catch guarantees that there will inevitably be a final owner, for whom the purchase of the bottle means certain doom.

I don't want to give away much more, but the story takes many twists and turns. Although written such that a youngster can enjoy it, it's simply brilliant.

The result is similar to the effects of deflation, or more so the greater-fool principle in reverse. The act of buying the bottle at any price comes at a heavy cost, perhaps even a theoretically impossible one, since it means that someone else must buy it for less, who must sell it for less (an increasingly difficult and ominous proposition), and the responsibility for bestowing it on the final buyer becomes more and more grave until it reaches a fatal level.

How similar this is to those (for example) that bought up empty McMansions to flip, with greater and greater dread in an increasingly overheated market, to greater fools, one of whom must inevitably wind up stuck with the bottle and its doom.

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Old 02-19-2009, 11:44 PM   #2
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Project Gutenberg has a downloadable public domain text of the tale

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Old 02-22-2009, 08:09 PM   #3
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Great tale. Thanks for the post and the link.
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