Proof

by

David Auburn

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Proof: Act One, Scene 3 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
It’s nighttime, and Catherine is again alone on the porch, this time wearing an attractive black dress. The party is going on inside the house, and the noise floats out onto the porch. As a band finishes a song, there’s cheering—a few moments later, Hal steps out onto the porch, sweaty from playing. Catherine looks at him and says that the celebration might be a bit too much for a funeral, but Hal says that it’s been a great time.
Claire gets her way—a party takes place the night of the funeral. When Catherine expresses her reservations about the party—she thinks it’s inappropriately boisterous for a funeral—she gets silenced by yet another person: Hal. Throughout the play, Catherine isn’t listened to by the other characters; in fact, it seems that the only person who believed in her was her father, Robert. Her frequent solitude (she’s again alone on the porch) suggests that she doesn’t have people in her life that she can trust to listen to her.
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When Hal encourages Catherine to join the party, she declines. But she does accept one of the two beers that he is holding. As she drinks, Hal says that there are about forty people left, all of them mathematicians who were delighted to receive an invitation to the funeral of a man they admired so much.
Catherine is unsure how to feel about Hal. After all, he broke her trust by lying about taking one of Robert’s notebooks, even though he planned to give it back as a surprise. She declines his invitation to join the party, but she does accept his beer, which suggests that she’s willing to hold a conversation with him, even if she doesn’t feel inclined to party with him.
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At last, Catherine admits that one of the band’s songs—the one called “Imaginary Number”—was a pretty nice tribute. Hal agrees; he thinks that the funeral was lovely, and that Robert probably would have enjoyed it. As Catherine eyes him, Hal concedes that it isn’t his place to say such things. But she agrees; everything went better than she had anticipated.
Hal is too familiar with Catherine: he tells her that Robert would have enjoyed the funeral even though Robert is her father, not his. Hal hasn’t built up the trust necessary to claim a close relationship with Catherine, so his comment comes off as presumptuous, rather than consoling. He still needs to prove that he is a trustworthy person before Catherine will feel comfortable confiding in him.
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Hal compliments Catherine on her dress, and she replies that Claire gave it to her, but it doesn’t fit. Hal insists that it looks nice. When Catherine asks Hal how long he thinks the guests will stay, he says he has no idea—mathematicians are intense partiers, which he knows from the wild conferences he has attended.
To prove his interest in Catherine, Hal compliments her. Catherine still doesn’t seem ready to accept his flattery, but she does ask him a question to keep the conversation going, which shows her interest in him and demonstrates her willingness to give him a chance to further prove his intention to build a relationship with her.
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According to Hal, quite a few older mathematicians are addicted to amphetamines, since they think “math is a young man’s game” and the drugs keep them sharp. Catherine points out that Hal used the term “men,” and he corrects himself to “young people.” When Catherine suggests that most mathematicians are indeed male, Hal mentions that there are some women, like a woman at Stanford whose name he can’t remember. “Sophie Germain,” Catherine says, and Hal says he’s probably seen her at conferences. Catherine coolly informs him that she was born in France in 1776.
This passage shows that Hal has some sexist beliefs. He accidentally implies that all mathematicians are men, which shows that he (perhaps subconsciously) sees math as a masculine field. This assumption is rooted in the sexist belief that women are not as smart as men and therefore aren’t clever enough to keep up with their male counterparts in the field of math. Hal tries to backpedal by correcting himself and saying that he knows one female mathematician at Stanford, but his attempt to redeem himself goes south when he fails Catherine’s test to see if he knows the woman’s name. He loses some credibility in Catherine’s eyes.
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Awkwardly, Hal acknowledges that he was wrong. Catherine explains that Sophie Germain taught herself math during the French Revolution. When no school would accept her based on her gender, she used a man’s name to write to another mathematician (a man named Gauss), sending him proofs involving prime numbers. Gauss was happy to work with “such a brilliant young man.”
Sophie Germain was a victim of sexist discrimination—she wasn’t allowed into universities because she was a woman. Her experiences demonstrate how the stereotype that women aren’t as smart as men locks women out of opportunities. In order to advance her career, she had to masquerade as a man because she knew that people would not believe that she, a woman, would be smart enough to study math.
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Hal realizes who Catherine is talking about—Sophie Germain is the person behind Germain Primes. He gives Catherine a simple example of a Germain Prime, and Catherine responds with a complex example, supposedly the biggest Germain Prime known. Hal is startled at Catherine’s knowledge.
Hal again underestimates Catherine’s abilities, which shows that he has internalized the sexist stereotype that women aren’t as smart as men. Not only does he condescend to Catherine by explaining Sophie Germain’s discovery—even though Catherine is clearly more knowledgeable than he is about who Germain is—Hal also gives Catherine a simple example of a Germain Prime, as though she wouldn’t be able to understand more complex examples.
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When Hal asks whether Gauss ever discovered Germain’s real identity, Catherine says that he did. He then wrote to Germain, praising her tenacity and brilliance in the face of all the sexist obstacles that she encountered in late 18th-century France. Catherine quotes a part of Gauss’s letter to Germain, but then she becomes self-conscious.
Germain’s experiences show how sexist discrimination threatens a woman’s chances of getting recognized for her talent. Because she had to use a man’s name in her correspondence with Gauss, Germain’s mathematical discoveries were almost not credited as hers—they were almost credited to a man’s name. Luckily, Gauss did believe Germain when she revealed her identity to him, but this does point out another perverse side to sexism: women still have to rely on men to gain recognition for their accomplishments. Had Gauss not believed Germain, it’s likely that her contributions would have been credited to a man’s name or even to Gauss, if he chose to take them as his own. Catherine’s interest in Germain suggests that she sees herself in Germain. Like Germain, Catherine is a female mathematician in a field that is overwhelmingly male. She, too, faces sexist skepticism regarding her abilities, which is most clear in her exchanges with Hal, who consistently underestimates her capabilities.
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Hal is stunned for a moment, then he kisses Catherine before pulling abruptly away. He’s embarrassed and apologetic, telling her he’s drunk. Catherine says it’s okay and apologizes for her behavior the night before—he can take as much time as he needs to go through the books. But Hal says that Catherine is probably right that all the notebooks are useless—so far, the only coherent one is the one he showed her last night.
Hal exhibits more sexist behavior: instead of addressing Catherine’s obvious interest in (and knowledge of) Sophie Germain, he seizes his opportunity to kiss her. In this moment, he appears to be more interested in using her sexually than in getting to know her. Catherine, however, accepts the kiss, demonstrating that she isn’t trying to shut him out. By conceding that Catherine was right about the notebooks, Hal is giving Catherine proof that he believes her, even though it has taken him a while to get there. He appears to know that he needs to show Catherine that she can trust him in order for them to have any kind of relationship.
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Catherine isn’t surprised, and when Hal says he’ll probably quit reading the notebooks soon, she asks him about his research. His work discourages him; it will never compare to Robert’s work. But Catherine reminds him that her father had to labor away at problems just like everyone else—he was just quicker at it. Hal isn’t encouraged, and he says he’ll probably end up teaching—after all, he’s twenty-eight, already too old to keep up with younger, more creative minds.
Catherine seems willing to try to build a relationship with Hal. She continues the conversation by asking about his work and, when he expresses his discouragement, she comforts him. While Hal sees Robert’s work as incomparably brilliant, Catherine tells him that Robert had to work hard just like everyone else. Her response suggests that she is familiar with her father’s genius and, unlike others, isn’t quite as daunted. It is unclear whether she is saying this just to comfort Hal or because her father’s way of thinking isn’t too unfamiliar to her (the implication being that she may have inherited some of his brilliance).
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After a moment, Catherine asks Hal about his sex life, referencing the wild conferences he had mentioned before. Hal can’t tell if Catherine is flirting with him, but he jokes that, as scientists, he and his colleagues like to experiment. Catherine laughs and then kisses him. Hal is taken aback but delighted. When Catherine says she enjoyed it, they kiss again.
Catherine and Hal continue to prove to each other that they are interested in building a relationship. The implication is that, in order to prove their romantic intentions, they have to give each other ample evidence that they are romantically interested in the other person.
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After the second kiss, Hal says that he has always liked Catherine, even just from glimpsing her at a distance when she would visit Robert. They kiss again, and Catherine asks Hal if he remembers visiting the house four years prior. He does, and he’s surprised that she remembers. Kissing him again, Catherine says that she thought he seemed “not boring.” They kiss some more.
In order to prove to the other person that they are romantically interested, both Hal and Catherine give evidence of their interest: Hal tells Catherine that he always liked her and remembers the day they met. Catherine assures him that her first impressions of him were favorable. After proving to each other their interest, they continue to kiss, demonstrating how trust must be earned and proved time and time again in relationships.
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