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A Feminist Criticism Of 'Proof'

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1515 words Published: 2nd May 2017

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“Proof” is a play by David Auburn, modern American play -writer. The play was produced for the first time at May 2000. Five years later Auburn adapted the play for the screen, and the movie “Proof” starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Anthony Hopkins, and Jake Gyllenhaal was also produced. This research is focused on the play but some references on the movie can be helpful also. The objective of this research is to provide the feminist criticism for the play.

“Proof”: feminist criticism

Feminist criticism is a kind of reader-response criticism reflecting the perception of the proper interpretive community. The common opinion tells that feminist literary critics prefer texts supporting feminist thinking, and the female characters are of more interest than male characters and masculine images. This point of view has a fair amount of sense but it doesn’t correspond to the general concept of feminist criticism. As the feminist movement in general, feminist literary criticism is concerned with the women rights as well as their reflection and depiction on the literature. Feminist criticism examines nit only female characters but their place in the literature, the author’s attitude to male and female characters, and social trends related to the women rights and reflected in the fiction. The stereotypical interpretation of gender roles in the media is also the object of feminist criticism. The science, especially the math, is one of the spheres considered as a traditionally male field. The brilliant female mathematician can be rather interesting character for the feminist criticism as well as other characters in the “Proof”.


The main character of the play, Catherine, is a youngest daughter of the brilliant mathematician. At the beginning of the play she is just out of her twenty fifth birthday. Her life wasn’t too long but she has experienced a personal drama already. She gave up the college and the expectations for individual success to take care about her father Robert, brilliant mathematician suffering from mental illness. This is an evidence of true love to the father, which characterizes Catherine as a person with loving soul. A week before her 25th birthday Robert passed away. Here starts the new stage in Catherine’s life and the plot of the play. Catherine analyzes herself and finds she is emotionally drained with the long years of care of her father, besides, she regrets about her abandoned education. She spent several years apart with the society and now she has to live the social life again. Two new people force Catherine to return to the society: her sister Claire and the former student and protege of her father, Hal. However, one thought dominates on all the problems: Catherine suspects she is as insane as her father was.

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The main intrigue of the play is centered on the brilliant, revolutionary math proof found in the notes of the dead scientist: “a mathematical theorem about prime numbers, something mathematicians have been trying to prove since… since there were mathematicians, basically.” Catherine claims she is an author of this proof, not her father. Really, Robert was the genuine mathematician in his young years: “He revolutionized the field twice before he was twenty-two”. However, during his last years he was mentally unstable and could hardly develop the new revolutionary proof. On the other hand, Catherine’s qualification seems to be obviously insufficient for such proof: her higher maths is strictly self-taught. Claire and Hal don’t believe Catherine is an author of the new proof.


Michael Billington from “The Guardian” writes that “Proof” is a work of a craftsman not an artist (Billington, 2002). He means that Auburn uses many popular cliches and standard situation in his play, thus the play is mostly entertaining. However, Auburn touches many important and deep themes and depicts them in sudden, humorous manner. The theme of genius and madness in the play balances between the image of nutty professor and the tragedy of Dr. Frankenstein. The love to the math, especially to simple digits, adds the humor to the play. The belief in the people when they are down, according to Walter Kerr, is one of the dominating themes in the play. At last, the romantic love of two gifted mathematicians supports the intrigue and provides the chance of happy-end in this story. However, the feminist criticism should take in attention two female character of the play.

Catherine and Clair: two sides of one talent

At the first glance it seems that two sisters oppose in the play.

Catherine is a main character, so she has to be attractive for the audience in some way. Sure, the audience feels sympathy to the girl, which sacrificed her education and future carrier to nurse the mentally unstable father. Her talent and willing to deep knowledge also make her attractive character.

Clair is the negative character in the play, unlike Catherine. Clair is bossy, manipulative, selfish, narrow-minded bourgeois woman – at least for her sister. Clair sells the family home without consulting Catherine, she even dictates to put milk in the coffee, so she behaves distracting.

It is interesting to analyze both characters in the light of traditional women roles in the patriarchal society. The sisters are more alike that it seems for the first glance. Claire is also talented in math – enough to be the successful currency analytic on the Wall-Street. It is important that her financial support made the last days of their father calm and comfortable. She wasn’t near his bed, but she paid the bills. However, the author’s attitude to this character is mainly negative. Probably the reason is that Clair is an independent contemporary woman, who places the personal carrier before the family.

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Unlike her pragmatic sister, Catherine has all the sympathy by the author and the readers. Her role of voluntary nurse is more traditional for the patriarchal society. Despite her own talent, Catherine always needs male support – first from her father, then from Hal. She is weaker than Claire and it makes her positive character in Auburn’s play. Thus, it is obvious that strong and independent woman is more likely to be the negative character nowadays than weak and embarrassed one.

Catherine: female mathematicians

The character of Clair can’t surprise the audience because this type of women is familiar for everyone. The female mathematician is more unusual character. Catherine (and her prototype Sophie Germain, famous mathematician) should prove that mathematical talent isn’t limited by gender. Despite the contributions of numerous women to the math science, including the work by Sophie Germain on the Fermat’s Last Theorem, women are still viewed as the exception rather than the norm in mathematics. Auburn made his main female character a math genius but at the same time he depicted her weak and depressed. The reason of such depiction can be strictly commercial. Carol Schafer in her article writes the following:

“Despite his pseudo-feminist focus on women’s capacity to understand higher mathematics, David Auburn offers only a feeble and shaky challenge to patriarchal authority in Proof Any threat to popular perceptions of women as being incapable of achievement in fields customarily dominated by men is deceptive, and the play’s popularity and its numerous awards expose a collective affirmation of patriarchal hegemony by the American public.” (Schafer, 2006) Schafer proves that true feminist play can’t achieve the commercial success among the conservative American society. The success of the movie “Proof” is as indirect evidence of Schafer’s thesis. The power of stereotyped perception of the mathematicians is so significant that some critics even consider Jake Gyllenhaal to be too handsome for the mathematician.

Thus, despite the attempt to reject the stereotypes, Auburn just proposed them in different form to achieve the commercial success.


The play “Proof” by David Auburn can be an interesting object for feminist literary criticism. The main character of the play is the female mathematician genius. At the first glance it seems that Auburn supports the ideas of feminism and women equal rights. However, the indirect factor – the comparison of two sisters, strong and weak – makes the roles of women in the play more traditional for the patriarchal society. The strong and independent sister is a negative character, while the main female character is weak and demands male support. It proves that conservative American society can’t appreciate the play about true feminist characters, so the power of stereotypes in the contemporary society is significant.


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