Fear and Trembling (novel)

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For the philosophical work by Søren Kierkegaard, see Fear and Trembling.
Fear and Trembling
Author Amélie Nothomb
Original title Stupeur et tremblements
Country Belgium
Language French
Genre Novel
Publication date
Pages 174
ISBN 2-226-10950-1

Fear and Trembling (original title: Stupeur et tremblements, which means "Amazement and trembling") is a novel by Amélie Nothomb, first published in 1999, and translated into English by Adriana Hunter. It was awarded the Grand Prix du roman de l'Académie française that year.


Amélie, a young Belgian woman who spent the first five years of her life in Japan, signs a one-year contract as a translator at the prestigious company Yumimoto. Beginning at the bottom of the corporate ladder, Amélie manages to descend even lower.

At her arrival to the Yumimoto company she is puzzled as she is apparently not assigned any actual work to do, so she first kills the boredom by memorising the company's list of employees and then she decides she could deliver company's mail, only to find herself later scolded for taking initiative and "stealing someone else's job".

Later her departmental manager asks her to copy a thick pile of documents, which, as she later realises, are the rules of his golf club. When she accomplishes the work, the manager returns it to her saying the copies are off-centered and asks her to re-do the job not using the feeder.

Copying the pages one by one, Amélie is approached by Mr. Tenshi, the manager of the Dairy Products Department, who wants to use her knowledge and asks her to draft a report about the new method of manufacturing reduced-fat butter developed in Belgium.

Next morning, when the manually-done copies are rejected by the manager again even without looking, she does the third batch of copies using the feeder and sets out to write the report for Mr. Tenshi. She researches the Japanese market, contacts the company in Belgium and obtains documentation from them, and continues writing the report overnight at home.

The report turns out to be a big success, but she asks Mr. Tenshi not to reveal who the real author is. Her transfer to Mr. Tenshi's department is imminent as Mr. Tenshi plans to present the report to the company's president.

However, Amélie's line manager, Fubuki Mori, feels offended as this constitutes a violation of the company's hierarchy and she exposes everything to the vice-president, who severely scolds Mr Tenshi and Amélie, and sees to it that Amélie writes no more reports and strictly sticks to doing duties assigned by Ms Mori.

Although advised by Mr Tenshi not to do so, Amélie decides to confront Ms Mori and talk to her personally. This encounter can be seen as the main juncture of the novel, as both characters feel the other should apologise, but at the same time each of them fails to recognise why she herself should do the same.

The main difference is that while Amélie feels her progress in her career from useless work to the place where she actually can use her skills has been hindered for no other reason than maliciousness, Ms Mori interprets Amélie's move as being against her as Amélie was trying to pass her by, thus violating the correct hierarchy. Ms Mori had to suffer and work hard for years to achieve her position and it was inconceivable to her to imagine that Amélie might achieve the same level of hierarchy within only a couple of weeks.

From that point on, the relationship between them changes from a fairly good one (which, though, only Amélie would describe as 'friendship') to animosity, although still accompanied by respect and admiration from Amélie's side, which Ms Mori either fails to notice or chooses to ignore.

Amélie proves herself useless at the tasks she is subsequently asked to do in the Accounts Department, as she apparently suffers from dyscalculia to some extent, while Ms Mori thinks Amélie is making mistakes on purpose to sabotage the company and the manager herself.

Another dialogue reveals the differences between the different concepts of responsibility in Japanese and Western cultures. While for Ms Mori the manager is directly responsible for the mistakes of their staff (You made the mistakes deliberately only to expose me to the public ridicule), Amélie thinks everybody is responsible for their own mistakes (I ridiculed only myself, not you).

The biggest mistake Amélie commits comes after Ms Mori has been severely abused by the vice-president in front of all the department. When Ms Mori, not having shown tears to her colleagues, goes to the bathroom to let her feelings out in private, Amélie follows her to console her. While from Amélie's point of view Ms Mori is not in a shameful position and offering a consolation like that is only a kind-hearted gesture, Ms Mori feels utterly ashamed to be seen showing her feelings and misunderstands Amélie's following her as vengefulness and hostility.

The next day Amélie is assigned the job of a bathroom cleaner by Ms Mori. With six more months of her one-year contract to go, Amélie decides to endure until the end, which might be shameful from the Western point of view, but from the Japanese point of view means not losing face.

After her contract finishes in January 1991, she returns to Belgium and starts publishing: her first novel Hygiène de l'assassin appearing in 1992, she receives a brief congratulation note from Ms Mori in 1993.

Explanation of title[edit]

According to the novel, in Japan, protocol states that in the presence of the Emperor, who until 1947 had been considered a living god, a person must demonstrate his or her reverence with fear and trembling, though most Japanese citizens today are unaware of this injunction.


Publication details[edit]