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Rebecca, the daughter of Isaac of York, is basically a superhero.
Think about how amazing Rebecca is. First, she is stunningly beautiful. The narrator tells us that her figure "might indeed have compared with the proudest beauties of England" (7.20). Second, she's smart as heck. Bois-Guilbert describes her as "keen-witted" (24.38), and the narrator says that she is as "endowed with knowledge as with beauty" (28.13). Third, she is generous and good to the poor. The peasant Higg would have lost the use of his legs had it not been for Rebecca's free medical treatment. And fourth, she is loyal to "the faith of [her] fathers" (44.73). She is probably the only character in the whole novel to show real, honest religious belief.
Not only does Rebecca have all these excellent personal qualities, she is also incredibly strong in the face of prejudice. When her beloved Ivanhoe implies that she can't understand the glory of battle because the Jews are not fighters, she gets right up in his face and tells him that the Old Testament is full of tales of heroic Jews. Just because she thinks warfare is stupid does not mean she is a coward. So Ivanhoe should just keep his mouth shut about what he does not understand. Even though Rebecca loves Ivanhoe and wants his admiration, she isn't willing to let him talk smack about her or her people.
All around, Rebecca is a strong woman. She is smart, educated, generous, beautiful, faithful, and tough as nails. We really can't think of a single thing wrong with her. Scott attributes at least some of the credit for Rebecca's good character to her situation. He claims she was born "haughty, supercilious, and obstinate" (24.17) – in other words, she is rather stubborn and snobby by nature. But her lifelong struggle against prejudice has made her humble in her pride. She believes in herself and her faith, but she's not arrogant. Oh Rebecca, you have stolen our hearts!
Are you getting sick of hearing Rebecca-this, Rebecca-that, Rebecca-Rebecca-Rebecca? Don't worry, so are we. Though we love her, it can be a bit frustrating to analyze a character with no apparent drawbacks. Seriously, the girl has zero flaws.
Rebecca responds to every scene gracefully. She insists that Gurth accept her money, rather than letting Ivanhoe pay for his own suit of armor after the tournament. She treats Ivanhoe's injuries, even though it's painful for her to be close to him when she's sure he can never love her. When Ivanhoe gets too bloodthirsty about the value of war and glory, Rebecca scolds him for forgetting the cost of conflict. And every time Bois-Guilbert tries to seduce Rebecca – with force, with flattery, with honest confession – she stands by her refusal. To top it off, Rebecca is so generous that, in the final chapter, she gives a chest of jewels to her love rival, Rowena, so that Rowena and Ivanhoe will have a fortune at the start of their married life. Now that is self-sacrifice, actually funding the marriage of the man she loves to another woman. Why is Rebecca so darn perfect?
The thing about Rebecca is that she is exceptional – she exceeds expectations in every way. Where Isaac is greedy, Rebecca is generous. Where he is cowardly, she is brave. And her beauty is so powerful that it makes even Lucas Beaumanoir feel a little bad about trying to execute her for witchcraft. It's as though Scott is trying to prove the unfairness of prejudice by showing that Rebecca is both Jewish and excellent in every way.
The problem we have with this strategy is that prejudice is wrong no matter who the person being discriminated against is. If Rebecca were ugly, stupid, and greedy, it would still be equally as wrong to discriminate against her for her religion. Scott is telling his (largely non-Jewish) audience: look at this extraordinary woman! How can anyone hate her for her religion? But what really proves a lack of prejudice is if you can look at a person who you genuinely dislike as a person and still not judge them according to their religion, race, color, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, or disability.
The bottom line is, Rebecca's character should not have to be perfect to gain our sympathy, either in the 1190s or in 1819, when Ivanhoe was published. Rebecca continues to be popular among readers today because she is an amazingly strong character. But we sort of wish she had a few flaws. Not only would a less-than-perfect Rebecca make for a stronger case against anti-Semitic prejudice, but she would also seem more human.
You knew this was coming. We bet you've even chosen sides in your own mind. Which were you going for? Team Rowena or Team Rebecca?
It's not really fair of us to compare Rowena and Rebecca, because they play completely different roles in the novel. Rowena is the safe bet of the book: Ivanhoe knows how he feels about her, Rowena knows how she feels about him, and all they have to do is wait for Cedric to come around. There's no true suspense in that relationship. It's just not that exciting.
Between Rebecca and Ivanhoe, though, there is something different. There are new feelings, one-sided loves, and unexpected attractions. There's also misunderstanding, resentment, and last-minute heroism. Even though we know that Ivanhoe and Rebecca are not going to wind up together, it's in their relationship that all the suspense and passion really lies. Rowena may get her man in the end, but all the narrative focus is on Rebecca – and Rowena can't help but come off badly as a result.
There are tons differences between the two characters. Rowena is blonde; Rebecca is brunette. Rowena is a noble-born but sheltered Christian Saxon; Rebecca is a wealthy and worldly Jew. But the real distinction between them is that Rowena has very little control over her own fate. She is constantly being pushed around, not only by the Normans, but by her own guardian, who wants her to marry a man she doesn't love.
Rebecca, on the other hand, is much more on the outside of English high society. The fact that she is not part of the English nobility actually gives her a lot of freedom. She gains self-confidence. She studies medicine. And whenever she is threatened with violence or shame, she always behaves with pride and resolve. Rebecca is much more resolved than Rowena about choosing her own fate, whether it be to die with dignity at the Templar trial or to go to Spain and devote herself to hospital work. Rowena just does not have Rebecca's gumption.
The difference between the two women really becomes apparent when Rebecca appears in Rowena's rooms in the final chapter of Ivanhoe. Technically, Rowena has "won": she is still wearing her wedding veil from her marriage to Ivanhoe. She has the man and the security that she wants. Rebecca, on the other hand, is sailing off into the unknown, heartbroken.
But Rebecca gives Rowena a box of jewels, a gesture Rowena can't entirely understand. (And frankly, we're also amazed that Rebecca just gives away this fortune to the woman who married the man she loved!) Rebecca rejects Rowena's suggestion that she convert to Christianity so she can stay in England, confirming that she is planning to devote her life to medicine in less prejudiced Spain.
Rebecca's rich gift, religious pride, and bravery in moving to a new place all leave a big impression in our minds. Her ending may be tragic, but her strength in facing it makes us sympathize with her more. By contrast, Rowena honestly still seems a bit dull by the end of the book. (For more on the conclusion, check out "What's Up With the Ending?")