An analysis of betrayal and trust in ‘Proof’

Published 15 Feb 2017

Proof is play that is authored by David Auburn, a work that earned him a Pulitzer Prize for his accomplishment. The book tells the story of Catherine, a young girl with a mental disorder who spent years caring for her father and learning mathematics and science (Daily Herald, 29). The story’s theme embodies issue of trust and betrayal, both of which are an emotional and logical act. Emotionally because in the play Catherine is most vulnerable emotionally, vulnerable in having her weaknesses known to others, all the while with the incessant fear of other’s using this knowledge to their advantage. Logically she is vulnerable because in her scientific, mathematical mind others are able to assess the probabilities of gain and loss, calculate expected utility based on hard performance data, and conclude that she will will behave in a predictable manner. In practice, trust is given because of experience and one’s faith in human nature.

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In “Proof”, the character of Catherine has issues with trust and a fear of betrayal because she has lost all confidence in herself, thus making it hard for her to understand anyone else’s confidence in her; therefore, trust and betrayal become strong themes present throughout the play.

The issue of trust and betrayal in the play is the driving force behind the character that develops within Catherine. Despite her intelligence, which her father acknowledged but refused to further develop, her fear and insecurity stands in the way of her own mathematical potential and that is why, throughout the play, we see her denial about her own accomplishments. She views her father’s genius turned madness as a heavy burden and almost a curse: if she has inherited his genius, she will end up inheriting his madness as well. Her refusal to trust herself, to become better and surpass her father’s intelligence, is one thing that obstructs her from standing up and improving herself. While alive and lucid her father was adamant that she use her potential, and in the visions where Catherine is seeing her father’s ghost he inspires her to face her fears and move forward with her gift. In the play her fear of betrayal and her distrust of others can clearly be understood through the character of her sister, who views Catherine as unable to care for herself and believes that her depression is a foreshadowing of her own insanity.

The truth is, Catherine is a very gifted woman. She is just afraid of being criticized and afraid to challenge the prospect and idea of being successful. This is an important part of the play since, when her father died she is left alone to care for herself. Her father isn’t there physically to encourage her and be with her. The only thing that her father gave is the memories they both shared and his father’s inherited intelligence, and according to her fears, his madness. The story indeed draws captivating and fascinating parallels between the world of math and real life. As Emmanuel Levy (DVD Reviews) said in a review:

“In math, solutions to complex problems are found by applying a rigorous set of rules. Hypotheses are subjected to deductions that can lead, if the right route is taken, to an unequivocal result: Proof. Furthermore, in real life, humans also search for solutions and proofs, but the rules are more subjective and fluid, and they must be negotiated. We crave certainty about our identities, knowledge, and relationships, but we have to draw conclusions from incomplete evidence. As a result, those conclusions seem provisional, invalid, and disturbing”. (Levy, DVD Reviews) The story tackles with those ethereal principles that are intricate to corroborate such as the feelings of trust, love, and sanity. When everything else fails, it doesn’t help to simply give up. Instead, a person could simply reflect

the mistakes committed, overcome it, try again, and simply continue to work, under the knowledge they have, until success will knock in the door. This is what Catherine lacked, although it is understandable in her situation with only her father believing in her, while the rest of the world simply thought of her as mentally unstable.

The theme of trust and betrayal is also associated through the love story of Hal and Catherine. Hal is one of Robert’s (Catherine’s father) students, a student that idolized her father and admired his successes in math. In an effort to learn more and gain something from the genius, Hal took the prospect of sorting through the stuff of his idol after hearing that Robert scribbled in notebooks during his illness, something that will be of help to him in the future or make him become a genius himself. Of course, Hal cannot simply go inside Catherine’s place without consent less he would be caught and accused of illegal entry and burglary. He has to come up with a plan to enable himself to get close to his idol’s stuff. Of course, Catherine is an advantage with her being unstable, it would be easy for him to simply lie or act in order to play on Catherine’s emotion to get what he wants. It cannot be denied, however, that Hal is initially attracted to Catherine the moment he met her; however, the timing for his meeting her is something of a coincidence in the mind of Catherine, who is unable to trust others’ motives.

Over the course of the story, readers and audiences alike are confronted with the question as to whether Hal is being true to Catherine or merely playing with her emotions for his own gain. When he found out what he’s looking for and Catherine shared and opened up to him that it’s her work, he himself refused to believe because his belief is grounded to the fact of her mental illness. When Catherine finally admits that the proof he finds is her work, he is in disbelief. Hal says, “If there was anything up there it would be pretty high-order. It would take a professional to recognize it”, in essence saying that she is unable to recognize something that advanced (Act I, Scene I). The thought of him with the prospect of becoming famous, rich and be known throughout the world if he claimed the work as his was too good to be true; however, it is something hard to do as he has to do it without hurting the person who has gone through a lot in life and tarnishing his respect to the person he always looked up and idolized.

Catherine, on the other hand, has kept that well-guarded secret of hers for a long time because she does trust herself, initially, and later cannot trust others.. When she met Hal, she was intrigued by the man and drawn unto him and soon falls in love with him. Faced with the possibility and hope that this might be the guy she’s waiting for and the guy who can replace her father’s place in her life, she put her trust in Hal, opening up herself and sharing her deepest secret; however, Hal doesn’t believe her at all. This is when the conflict comes between the two. It is a common fact that if a person really does love someone, that person would support, accept him or her for whom and what he or she is without second thoughts and stand up and fight for them when they are confronted with trouble.

Yet, that is not the case for Hal, for instead of believing Catherine, he simply brushed off the idea, instead relying on his logical belief that Catherine is mentally unstable and is thus incapable of doing something great. Even Claire, her very own blood sister, refuses to believe her capability. Additionally, the fact that mathematics is not a woman’s world, but a man’s world is also there which something is true in most cases. The assumption is that mathematics is something men are good at, and not women, thus the gender bias.

“Women and mathematics are not often associated with one another. . . . One of the issues in the play is the perception that the mathematics profession is biased against women. If language itself privileges the male, then perhaps the language of mathematics, a field dominated by men, excludes women, and it is here that Catherine transgresses”. (Petrakis 42)

“Proof” is a very compelling and very well told tale in the form of a play, filled with enough twists and surprises to keep readers and audience alike guessing. It satisfies on multiple levels either in intellectual, emotional and psychological. Additionally, the four well-delineated and tightly entwined characters of the story which combine family drama, mystery, and love story are the perfect vehicles by which to show how trust and betrayal affect the lives of others, and in this case Catherine in particular.

Overall, the story isn’t merely about authorship, ambition, talent or even the beauty of mathematics; rather, it is about the love between a father and daughter, and how finding one’s own way in the world sometimes involves climbing over the grave of the one you can’t bear to leave behind (Petrakis 42).

Works Cited

  • “‘Proof’ Soars with Fine Writing, Acting.” Daily Herald 27 May 2005: 29.
  • Auburn, David. Proof: a Play. 1st ed. New York: Faber and Faber, 2001.
  • Levy, E. “Proof.” Rev. of Proof, by David Auburn. 11 Aug. 2007.
  • Petrakis, J. “Proof of Love.” The Christian Century 4 Oct. 2005, 122 ed., sec. 22: 4
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