49 pages 1 hour read

Richard Powers


Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2021

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Summary and Study Guide


Bewilderment is a 2021 novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Powers. Set in the near future amid a collapsing environment, the story follows a single parent named Theo Byrne and his son Robin, who is neurodivergent. The novel has been shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize.

Plot Summary

Theo Byrne is an astrobiologist who specializes in the search for extraterrestrial life. His wife, Alyssa, died two years ago, and now he must raise their son, Robin, on his own. Robin has several neurodivergent conditions, though Theo refuses to give his son psychoactive drugs. After an outburst at school, Robin takes a trip with his father to the cabin where Theo and Alyssa spent their honeymoon. Alyssa was an enthusiastic lobbyist for animal rights and passed on her love of nature to her son.

During their stay at the cabin, Theo and Robin hike and then swim in a stream together, and Theo worries about what will happen to Robin when they return to their normal lives. In addition, Theo anxiously tries to ignore the news about increasingly common climate catastrophes. When the father and son return home, Theo tells Robin about imaginary, distant planets as though they were bedtime stories.

Robin fights another boy at school, and Theo must take time out of his hectic schedule to help his son. He discusses Robin’s case with the school psychologist, who emphasizes that Robin needs to improve his social skills. Theo consoles Robin, who admits that he hit another boy for disparaging his mother’s memory. In tribute to her, Robin invents a project to help the environment: He wants to paint every endangered animal in America and sell the paintings to raise money for environmental charities. Theo encourages Robin, but the plan backfires when Robin insists that he can’t go to school because he must devote himself to the project.

Theo visits an old friend of Alyssa’s, Dr. Martin Currier. As a neuroscientist, Currier researches brain scans and emotional states. Many years earlier, Alyssa and Theo took part in one of Currier’s experiments. Theo asks him about Robin’s problems. Currier offers to include Robin in a new experiment, which will use a scan of Alyssa’s emotional state to help train Robin to control his emotions. After some deliberation, Theo agrees to enter Robin in the experiment. Over the several weeks it takes, Robin shows remarkable progress. Theo is thankful to Currier, but he suspects that Currier slept with Alyssa.

Robin continues his painting project, inspired by other teen activists he sees on the internet. He sells his paintings and tries to organize a protest at the state Capitol as the political situation in the US becomes increasingly tumultuous. Robin’s personality completely changes due to Currier’s sessions. He becomes personable and friendly, maintaining control of his emotions. Still obsessed with nature, he keenly shares his fascination with others.

Theo is shocked when Robin says that he wishes to homeschool. After a discussion, Theo relents. He struggles to balance his work commitments with Robin’s needs. However, the pace at which Robin learns astonishes Theo. Currier is so impressed with Robin’s progress that he asks Theo to use Robin’s data to help secure funding. Theo eventually agrees, but Robin’s progress becomes a sensation: He becomes famous, and viral internet videos spread his sincere optimism and love of nature throughout the world.

Theo travels to Washington, DC, to speak about funding for a large project to search for extraterrestrial life. Robin accompanies him and designs a banner to raise awareness for environmentalism. Theo’s speech goes badly, but many people are interested in Robin’s banner. The police intervene because Theo and Robin don’t have a permit. Theo reacts badly, and the increasingly fascist police arrest him. As the country descends into chaos, Currier reveals that political difficulties have resulted in the defunding of his research. Therefore, Robin’s sessions must stop. Slowly, Robin’s behavior begins to change. He loses all the progress he has made, though he fights back against this process.

Theo tries to help Robin by taking him back to the cabin in the woods. They relive their earlier vacation but find that people have changed the stream where they swam earlier. That night, Robin sneaks out of the tent and tries to restore the stream to its natural state. However, he spends too long in the freezing water. By the time Theo finds him, it’s too late. Robin dies. Theo mourns his son’s death as environmental disasters continue. Currier offers Theo the chance to connect to Robin through his old brain scans, and Theo willingly accepts.