By showing how one family deals with crisis, Proof explores the value of caretaking. The two sisters of the play, Catherine and Claire, have different ideas about how they should have cared for their late father, Robert. Catherine thought it was best to keep him at home where he was surrounded by the things he loved, even if this meant making personal sacrifices (such as quitting college) to care for him. Claire, on the other hand, believes that Robert would have been “better off” in a mental institution. She thinks that Catherine’s sacrifices were unnecessary and that neither of them owed it to their father to put their lives on pause when he got sick. But when Catherine exhibits some of the symptoms of their father’s mental illness, Claire wants to be more involved—she tries to force Catherine to move to her home in New York City so that Claire can look after her, and it doesn’t seem to matter to Claire that Catherine doesn’t want to go. In this way, the sisters embody two different attitudes towards caretaking: Catherine prioritized what her father wanted, whereas Claire believes that she knows what’s best for Catherine, even though Catherine disagrees. But the play comes down on Catherine’s side: in a journal entry, Robert expresses gratitude that he was able to spend his last years at home, and at the end of the play, Catherine seems to have done the right thing by refusing to go to New York. Proof thereby suggests the importance of listening to the desires of the person who needs care.
In caring for Robert, Catherine puts his needs above her own, which gives him a fulfilling end-of-life. When Robert got sick, Catherine made tremendous sacrifices to do what she thought would be best for him. Instead of institutionalizing him, she dropped out of college and spent her young twenties caring for her father and living with him, putting a damper on her professional ambitions, social life, and independence. But Catherine is certain that this was best for Robert; as she tells Claire at one point, “He needed to be here. In his own house, near the university, near his students, near everything that made him happy.” In the end, it seems like Catherine did the right thing. After Robert’s death, his former student Hal finds an entry in one of his journals expressing gratitude for Catherine’s caretaking. Robert specifically says that “her refusal to let me be institutionalized—her keeping me at home, caring for me herself, has certainly saved my life.” And, despite Catherine’s tremendous sacrifices for her father, she also seems to benefit from the time she spent caring for him. For one, it made them closer: despite his poor health, she still found that the nights that she spent with him “were usually pretty good.” Additionally, caring for Robert gave her time to work on her groundbreaking proof after he went to bed each night.
By contrast, Claire doesn’t account for Catherine and Robert’s desires when she considers how best to care for them. This is clearest in her insistence that both Robert and Catherine would have “better off” had Robert been institutionalized instead of Catherine caring for him at home. Obviously, this isn’t what Robert or Catherine wanted, but Claire seems to think it would have been best because it’s what would have been easiest for her. When Robert got sick, Claire was working long hours and didn’t want to sacrifice her life and ambitions to care for her father. Perhaps she feels guilty that she didn’t make as selfless a choice as Catherine, or perhaps she genuinely thinks that Catherine’s sacrifice made her suffer unnecessarily—but regardless, her presumption about what would have been best for her sister and father seems to disregard their own preferences. Claire does the same thing when she tries to force Catherine to move in with her. Perhaps to Claire this feels selfless (as she’s offering to care for Catherine and allow her to live in her home), but Catherine vehemently rejects this idea. She wants to keep her life in Chicago, rather than moving to New York, and she wants to be independent, rather than living with her big sister. Instead of letting Claire dictate her future, Catherine wants to be allowed to “take some time to figure things out” for herself. Ultimately, she is able to seize this freedom—and the play ends with optimistic signs for her career and her relationship with Hal. This suggests that moving to New York wouldn’t have been right for Catherine, even if it was convenient for Claire.
Despite their differing approaches, both Claire and Catherine want to take care of their family members. The difference is that, when Robert needs care, Catherine prioritizes his needs over her own. Claire, on the other hand, tries to care for Robert—and then, later, for Catherine—by making plans for them that are in her (as opposed to their) best interests. Although Claire feels as though she is helping by intervening, she isn’t actually caring for them; she’s caring for herself in a difficult situation and disguising it as aiding her family members. Robert’s journal entry shows that Catherine’s selfless caretaking is the better way to do things—not only did it lead to brief remission, but it also strengthened their bond.
Caretaking and Sacrifice ThemeTracker
Caretaking and Sacrifice Quotes in Proof
HAL: […] “Talking with students helps. So does being outside, eating meals in restaurants, riding buses, all the activities of ‘normal’ life. Most of all Cathy. The years she has lost caring for me […] her refusal to let me be institutionalized—her keeping me at home, caring for me herself, has certainly saved my life. Made writing this possible. Made it possible to imagine doing math again […] I can never repay her.”
CLAIRE: Did you use that conditioner I bought you?
CATHERINE: No, shit, I forgot.
CLAIRE: It’s my favorite. You’ll love it, Katie. I want you to try it. […] It has jojoba […] It’s something they put in for healthy hair.
CATHERINE: Hair is dead […] It’s dead tissue. You can’t make it healthy.
CLAIRE: It makes my hair feel, look, and smell good. That’s the extent of my information about it. You might like it if you decide to use it.
CATHERINE: I know you mean well. I’m just not sure what I want to do. I mean to be honest you were right yesterday. I do feel a little confused. I’m tired. It’s been a pretty weird couple of years. I think I’d like to take some time to figure things out.
CLAIRE: You could do that in New York.
CATHERINE: And I could do it here.
CLAIRE: But it would be much easier for me to get you set up in an apartment in New York, and—
CATHERINE: I don’t need an apartment, I’ll stay in the house.
CLAIRE: We’re selling the house.
CLAIRE: Living here with him didn’t do you any good. You said that yourself.
You had so much talent…
CATHERINE: You think I’m like Dad.
CLAIRE: I think you have some of his talent and some of his tendency toward…instability.
CATHERINE: “[…] In September the students come back and the bookstores are full. Let X equal the month of full bookstores. The number of books approaches infinity as the number of months of cold approaches four. I will never be as cold now as I will in the future. The future of cold is infinite. The future of heat is the future of cold. The bookstores are infinite and so are never full except in September…” […] It’s all right. We’ll go inside.
ROBERT: I’m cold.
CATHERINE: We’ll warm you up.
ROBERT: Don’t leave. Please.
CATHERINE: I won’t. Let’s go inside.