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It's hard to know where to start analyzing Rowena because we know so little about her. We know a lot about the people around Rowena: she's Cedric's ward, Ivanhoe's love interest, and Athelstane's temporary fiancée. But Rowena herself remains something of a mystery. We know that she is fair and beautiful. (No surprise there.) And the narrator tells us that she is "mild, timid, and gentle" (23.28) by nature – though she is rather proud and snobby thanks to her sheltered upbringing. Beyond these character traits, though, it's tough to get a sense of Rowena as an individual.
The truth is, Rowena often comes across more as a pawn for the men in the novel than a character in her own right. Think about it: Maurice de Bracy decides he wants to marry her as soon as he finds out how much money she has. Cedric wants to set her up with Athelstane so they can spawn a new generation of strong, royal Saxon children. None of these relationships is based on Rowena as a person; they just take advantage of her wealth or noble blood.
Even Ivanhoe tends to treat Rowena as an object. When he returns to England and his old neighborhood, rather than just come out and tell Rowena who he is, he keeps his disguise on, even when she pulls him into a private conversation at Rotherwood. At the tournament Ivanhoe wins the right to name Rowena the Queen of Beauty and Love, but we imagine she would probably prefer a face-to-face meeting to this weird beauty pageant-style prize.
Then, before you know it, at the end of the novel (at Athelstane's fake funeral, no less), Cedric finally agrees to let Ivanhoe marry Rowena. Hey – where was the wooing? Where was the relationship building up to this final wedding announcement? The whole romance between Rowena and Ivanhoe has already been accomplished by the time Ivanhoe starts. Scott wastes no time showing us love scenes between the two of them; we are just supposed to assume that they have happened sometime in the past. We admit to feeling a tad bit cheated.
Rowena is Ivanhoe's love interest because he has to have one. He is a medieval knight who believes in romance, freedom, and love. According to the rules of chivalry and courtly love, Ivanhoe needs a lady to fight for. This makes Rowena something of a pawn for Scott himself: she's in the novel primarily to fill the stereotypical role of love interest and damsel in distress. Even her appearance emphasizes this quality: she often looks "serious" (42.13), proud, modest, and filled with "dignity" (4.27). These are all words that express a certain distance and reserve. She's not close to many other characters in the novel, nor do we, the reading audience, really warm to her.
The one time when Rowena really breaks this serene mask is when De Bracy tries to convince her to marry him while he keeps her captive at Torquilstone. As he keeps pressing her, she bursts into tears. The narrator comments:
[Rowena] could scarce conceive the possibility of her will being opposed, far less that of its being treated with total disregard.
Her haughtiness and habit of domination was, therefore, a fictitious character, induced over that which was natural to her, and it deserted her when her eyes were opened to the extent of her own danger, as well as that of her lover and her guardian; and when she found her will, the slightest expression of which was wont to command respect and attention, now placed in opposition to that of a man [De Bracy] of a strong, fierce, and determined mind, who possessed the advantage over her, and was resolved to use it, she quailed before him. (23.28-29)
In other words, Rowena has gotten used to bossing people around in Cedric's household at Rotherwood. Being spoiled has made her seem both stern and proud, but in fact she is a marshmallow on the inside. When De Bracy threatens her, she can't take the pressure. This section gives us a glimpse of Rowena's vulnerable heart, but it's almost the only sign we get that her distant and cold manner is hiding something more vulnerable and sympathetic on the inside.
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?")