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Exploring Father and Daughter Bonds through “Proof”

Jan. 31st, 2010The film Proof (2005) gives us a view into various aspects of the father-daughter relationship.

The father, Robert Llewellyn, is played by Anthony Hopkins, and his daughter, Catherine, played by Gwyneth Paltrow. As the film opens, we see a despondent Catherine having an interchange with her father. We realize within minutes that Robert has recently died, setting up a metaphor for how others can haunt us.

In this case, we will be following the ways in which a daughter may be “haunted” by her father.

There are several patterns of father-daughter relationship that can be seen in this film. Firstly we see that Catherine, a brilliant mathematician in her own right, lives under the shadow of her father’s genius (he had come up with three ground-breaking mathematical proofs while only in his 20’s). Psychologically it is sometimes difficult for children to surpass their parents due to an unconscious loyalty; it turns out that Catherine even felt guilty that her own success in solving a proof was the cause of her father’s death.

Secondly, we see the pattern of care-taking. In mythology, Antigone was the daughter of Oedipus. She ended up forsaking her own life to take care of her father after he had blinded himself. We see this same motif in Proof. Robert had become mentally ill. Refusing to let her father be institutionalized, Catherine drops out of school to take care of him. In addition, because she had such affinity with her father, she worried that she, too, might be on the road to madness.

At one point, she says she’s afraid that she’s like her dad. Her love interest, Hal (Jake Gyllenhaal) reassures her: in some ways she’s like him, but she is not her father.

Another issue is that of complicity – a secret, exclusive understanding – that can happen between parents and their children, often in a detrimental way. It can border on the emotionally incestuous and can make movement towards autonomy and individuation challenging. Even the fact that father and daughter here have a special language (Mathematics) that few others share is symbolic. Because of enmeshment and merging with her father, we see Catherine’s confusion, unclear to what’s hers and what’s his, and her difficulty in claiming what is hers: the “proof” which she had written. Even her sister and Hal doubted that it was her own effort; they were convinced that it was Robert’s work. They needed evidence – “proof” –  that she had become a person in her own right.

In light of this film, it’s interesting to ask ourselves how we have might be haunted by our own parental legacies. The idea of “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” can contain a mixture of pride and dread. It’s up to us, as we grow psychologically into adulthood, to discern what is truly ours and what we are carrying for others.

Creative Commons License photo credit: IndieNate

Exploring Father and Daughter Bonds through “Proof”

Marla Estes, MA

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APA Reference
Estes, M. (2011). Exploring Father and Daughter Bonds through “Proof”. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 25, 2019, from


Last updated: 16 Apr 2011
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