“Literature reflects society and derives its essential existence and significance from the social situations to which it responds” (Kirszner et al. 1634), and a play can be the perfect tool to study society because it is able to remove narrative bias and focus on the characters exchanges. David Auburn’s play, Proof, is a twenty-first century microcosm of Western cultural views where Chicagonites display these social interactions. The interactions will first demonstrate specific gender stereotypes, and then the management of mental illness in the Western world.
A century ago, it was thought that women’s minds were dominated by their wombs and that they were too delicate to cope with the stress of education (Henslin 322). Within our century, women have gained a statistically higher margin in obtaining bachelor’s degrees[i] and have thus debunked the earlier allegations that women were emotionally unable to handle educational stress. Even so, Auburn sees the biases upon women and uses this to express the danger to a society that eliminates the female perspective.
The first meeting of Catherine is her conversation with her late father. He expresses his faith in her intellectual prowess and gives her sound advice of how to continue putting her brain to good use. He tells her that since “[she] knew what a prime number was before [she] could read” (1.1. 77), she should not “waste [her] talent” (1.1.79). A century ago, her father would not have been discussing or encouraging her intellectual growth, rather he might be urging her to study “one-third as much” (Henslin 322) as her male peers. Auburn deepens his gender analysis by employing twenty-first century social assistance in showing the opportunity afforded to Catherine.
Northwestern, a prestigious school, has offered Catherine “a free ride” (2.1.56). According to U.S. News and World Report, Northwestern ranks number twelve out of more than fourteen hundred colleges and is considered a “most selective” school. Auburn illustrates that twenty-first century educational institutions have moved past the societal notion that women have no place in the educational arena. Women, through the application of programs like affirmative action, are therefore afforded a much better opportunity for success. While this is being touched upon, there are still hurdles that Auburn acknowledges.
Towards the end of the play, it is revealed that Catherine has developed a mathematical breakthrough. As suggested, women’s intellect has granted them a higher percentage of degrees, yet the play comments on the persistent societal labels placed on women. They are not intelligent enough, at least in the mathematical world, to develop groundbreaking work, or so the mathematicians think. Cultural Studies: Theory & Practice by Chris Barker touches on these labels when he states that “there is  considerable evidence that: women are more verbal, co-operative and organized then men; [and] men show greater spatial, mathematical and motor skills than women” (Barker 286). This evidence is based on the hormonal effects on the brain,[ii]but as we see in Proof, Catherine is the exception to the rule.
When Catherine clarifies that she “didn’t find it. [She] wrote it” (1.4.187), she is forced to explain herself and demonstrate that she wrote the proof. She has not proven herself to be a liar; moreover, she is explaining herself to the man whom she was just intimate with and her own sister. The stronghold of stereotypes is expressed by Auburn as a plague in our society. It persuades women to discourage themselves from pursuing their intellectual gifts and rejects advancements that otherwise would be cultivated among men.[iii] While society rejects women beyond the confines of female roles, society is equally rigid with men.
When our society elects a president based upon his likeability and wanting to share a beer with him, intellectual men – specifically scientific men – have their own societal dilemmas. The article “Nerd Nation: Images of Nerds in US Popular Culture” by Lori Kendall[iv] states that Western patriarchal society values the image of the cowboy: that rugged, manual laboring sort of individual (Kendall 265). Therefore, the males who would have been regarded as uncool a decade ago are altered through Auburn’s character Hal who rejects the “geek, nerd, wonk, dweeb, dilbert, paste-eater” (1.1.263) stigma through his clothing, speech, and opinions of nerdism.
Before the rise of the internet and the affordability of computers, the computer was a machine one feared. Sherry Turkle – quoted in Kendall’s article - suggests that the average citizen in the early eighties saw computers as something that could possibly “think or are in some sense alive” (Kendall 263). Hence interacting with someone who understood these complex machines created for the layman a “potential compromise through [their] close relationship with computers” (Kendall 263).
Now, however, because the computer has become commonplace,[v] this once irrational fear of “computer nerds” who had enjoyed computers has changed along with the societal view of the nerd. Hal, for example, discusses in length of the stereotypes. Who once was thought of as someone who wore “uncoordinated clothing, pocket protectors, lack of personal hygiene, too short (‘high-water’) pants, and glasses, especially with ad hoc repairs (i.e. held together with tape or glue)” (Kendall 263), has changed to “geeks who, you know, can dress themselves…hold down a job at a major university…Some of them have switched from glasses to contacts. They play sports, they play in a band, they get laid surprisingly often […]” (1.1.263).
Additionally, Hal first enters the play and Auburn describes him wearing “semi-hip clothes.” (1200) and a conversation between Claire and Catherine further dismisses the archaic image of the nerd:
Claire: That’s Harold Dobbs?
Claire: He’s cute.
Catherine: (disgusted) Eugh.
Claire: He’s a mathematician? (1.2.203-07)
While Catherine may outwardly exhibit feelings of disgust towards Hal, the play reveals their mutual affection for one another despite his pervasive intellectualism and her seemingly socialized view of an intellectual. Claire too is surprised at his lack of reiterating the look of a mathematician in her “[h]e’s a mathematician?” expression. Furthermore, Auburn not only revamps the image of the nerd, but expresses the mathematically intellectual as a group who are rather rebellious:
Hal: It’s down to about forty.
Hal: Just the hardcore partyers.
Catherine: My sister’s friends.
Hal: No, mathematicians. Your sister’s friends left hours ago. (1.3.10-14)
Catherine: When do you think they’ll leave?
Hal: No way to know. Mathematicians are insane. I went to this
conference in Toronto last fall. I’m young, right? I’m in shape, I
thought I could hang with the big boys. Wrong. I’ve never been so
exhausted in my life. Forty-eight straight hours of partying, drinking,
drugs, papers, lectures… (1.3.29-30)
This image is entirely different than the pocket protector wearing one. The twenty-first century nerd drinks, parties, and manages to have a career. Moreover, Auburn takes the “stylish, attractive” (1207) New York implant Claire and juxtaposes her with the mathematicians. She and her friends are unable to keep up with the “partyers,” thus rejecting the traditional stigma of the nerd. Similarly, Auburn discusses Western coping mechanisms regarding the mentally ill, despite the stigmas[vi] placed upon them.
This conversation Auburn has with the reader in part highlights the coping styles of psychological breakdowns within a family unit. While Western society typically encourages the assistance of an authority by either in-patient or out-patient care, the text Abnormal Psychology in a Changing World’s supplemental reading “How Do I Find Help?” shows “there are pages upon pages of psychologists and other mental health professionals in the telephone directory” (Nevid et al. 104), Catherine opts to act as her father’s keeper.
Catherine and her sister argue about what would have been best for their ailing father and Auburn does not make a judgment for either option. Claire believes that their father would have been better off “in a full-time professional-care situation.” (1.4.119) and Catherine sees the good year he had as evidentiary home was the place “[h]e needed to be . In his own house, near the university, near his students, near everything that made him happy.” (1.4.126)
Mental illness is a subject with many differing opinions and the handling of these specific problems is on a case-by-case basis.[vii] The abnormal psychology text states, “more radical psychosocial theorists, like Thomas Szasz, even deny the existence of psychological disorders or mental illness. Szasz (1961, 2000) argues that “abnormal” is merely a label society attaches to people whose behavior deviates from acceptable social norms” (Nevid et al. 60). This can be seen when Catherine talks to her deceased father as well as when Claire discusses Catherine’s own mental health:
Catherine: You said a crazy person would never admit that […] (1.1.182)
Catherine: You’re sitting here. You’re giving me advice. You brought me
Catherine: Which means…
Robert: For you?
Robert: For you, Catherine, my daughter, who I love very much… It could
be a bad sign. (1.1.192-97)
While westerners who talk to the deceased may have their mental health come into question, Catherine is not necessarily affected by mental illness because she is coping with the loss of a loved one. As such, a whole host of ways to help manage the stressor is available, such as “coping styles, self-efficacy expectancies, psychological hardiness, optimism, social support, and ethnic identity” (Nevid et al. 149) and these ways of management, specifically coping styles and social support, are prevalent in Proof.
According to a college questionnaire, “death of a close family member” (Nevid et al. 147) ranks 96 out of a scale of a hundred; therefore, Catherine is coping with some very emotionally challenging stresses. The act of Catherine talking to her deceased father may be a valuable way for her to experience her father’s presence, and not necessarily a sign that she is deteriorating mentally. Yet this is, as the reader sees, the difficulty with the coping of mental affectations and there is an on-going discovery of the best options as shown in the fifteen choices of “How Do I find Help?” (Nevid et al. 104)
Moreover, Claire believes that Catherine should live with her and her fiancee in New York even though that would remove Catherine from her home, school, and new romantic interest. The abnormal psychology text reveals the importance of social support in a study that showed the broader level of social support one has the better able one may stave illness. The study advocates that “social contacts may help protect the body’s immune system by serving as a buffer against stress” (Nevid et al. 152). Auburn may be suggesting that even though society has their downfalls – constrictions on women and men – social networks are an invaluable resource.
In the beginning of the play, Catherine is shown speaking with her deceased father while drinking out of a champagne bottle and Auburn reveals through Robert her depressive symptoms. “You sleep till noon, you eat junk, you don’t work, the dishes pile up on the sink […]” (1.1.85), yet by the end of the play Catherine is sitting with Hal and he says “talk me through it? Whatever’s bothering you. Maybe you’ll improve it” (2.5.159) encouraging her to open up and express herself clearly. Auburn then leaves the reader with “she begins to speak” (1246) showing her openness and possibly the brightness of her future; she has thus shown the benefits of social networks.
Auburn’s critique of the rigidity of keeping males only in the mathematical world shows the possible detriment of gender stereotypes on society, his removal of the nerd stigma encourages intellectualism in Western society, and even though mental illness is fraught with multiple options and opinions on what works best, social connections are of the utmost importance in coping with the difficulties of mental illness. David Auburn’s Proof provides insight to both the challenges and benefits on society. Through the Western world’s institutions and social interactions, the reader experiences a group’s values and the challenges they face. Auburn uses his protagonist to express these views and thus delicately gives options of how one may overcome some of the more rigid structures our society builds.
[i] Women earn 56 percent of all bachelor’s degrees and 57 percent of all master’s degrees [Statistical Abstract 2001] (Henslin 323)
[ii] Evidence suggests – over 30 global studies- that girls who are born after exposure to higher levels of male hormones exhibit a play style that is closer to boys. (Henslin 287)
[iii] Gender stratification is the process by which males and females have unequal access to power, prestige, and property. (Henslin 308)
[iv] Lori Kendall is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the State University of New York, Purchase College.
[v] “The reconfiguration of hegemonic masculinity to include all aspects of the once subjugated masculine stereotype of the nerd relates both to changes in economic and job prospects for middle-class white males, and to the growing pervasiveness of computers in work and leisure activities.” (Kendall 261)
[vi] “A nationwide probability survey showed that as much as 75% of the public view people with mental illness as dangerous.” (Corrigan et al. 165-66)
[vii] “Sickness” and “health” are not concrete terms; they differ from culture to culture. Talking to spirits, for example, in the United States would be considered grounds for hospitalization, but in tribal societies, “someone who talks to invisible spirits might be honored for being in close contact with the spiritual world.” (Henslin 565)
Auburn, David. "Proof." Literature : Reading, Reacting, Writing. By Laurie G. Kirszner and Stephen R. Mandell. Compact 6th ed. Boston: Heinle, 2006. 1193-246.
Barker, Chris. Cultural Studies : Theory and Practice. 3rd ed. Minneapolis: SAGE Publications, Limited, 2008.
Henslin, James M. Sociology : A Down-to-Earth Approach. 6th ed. Danbury: Allyn & Bacon, Incorporated, 2001.
Kelly, Brian, ed. "Best Colleges." 2008. 14 Nov. 2008
Kendall, Lori. "Nerd Nation: Images of Nerds in US Popular Culture." 1999. California State University Northridge. 14 Nov. 2008
Nevid, Jeffrey S., Spencer A. Rathus, and Beverly Greene. Abnormal Psychology in a Changing World. 6th ed. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2005.