Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, a romantic story set in Medieval England; embodies the definition of how a novel’s themes are applied to human life. The representation of Jews in Ivanhoe, through the character Rebecca, outlines the most important themes within the novel such as chivalry, romance, and centuries long English Anti-Semitism.
Many interpret Ivanhoe as a solely Anti-Semitic work, focusing on the rituals of the Templar Knight, highlighted in the concluding chapters of Ivanhoe. The Templar Knights are described and consisted of a secret society of Christian militant men dressed in white, condemning any of dark-complexioned skin; all traits and rituals of the Ku Klux Klan. The Ku Klux Klan’s very name echoes the romantic “clans” in Scott’s fiction. However, Rebecca, a Jewess, is saved from the stake, after being condemned. Proving that Scott couldn’t have written Ivanhoe as an Anti-Semitic piece, otherwise his conclusion of the novel would have been completely contradictory to his views.
Chivalry and Romance are treated as one in Ivanhoe; the themes intertwine within the whole of the novel. Rebecca, the Jewess, is the vital element to cultural mixing and its effects on chivalry within the novel. Ivanhoe’s true love, before Rebecca and Rowena, is chivalry itself and his knightly career (page 292):
“thou knowest not how impossible it is for one trained to actions of chivalry to remain passive as a priest, or a woman, when they are acting deeds of honour around him. The love of battle is the food upon which we live—the dust of the 'melee' is the breath of our nostrils! We live not—we wish not to live—longer than while we are victorious and renowned—Such, maiden, are the laws of chivalry to which we are sworn, and to which we offer all that we hold dear."
Ivanhoe is not ready to settle down from his chivalric ways, and in turn, develops a fascination with Rebecca, who serves as a literal metaphor to The Crusades; a war that introduced exotic desires to the white man. Rebecca, for both Ivanhoe and Bois-Guilbert, is Jerusalem itself; an irresistible, chivalric quest that ends with a duel to the death. It is understandable that Ivanhoe would not present as much affection to Rowena, as he does to Rebecca throughout the novel. In comparison, readers find that Rowena seems disappointing to Ivanhoe after experiencing the seductions of Rebecca’s beauty and exotic nature.
And it is Rebecca who is the object of Ivanhoe’s and Bois-Guilbert’s desires, which provides the climax of action within the novel. Ivanhoe’s restless, half-dead ride to rescue Rebecca, prepared to desert Rowena even at the moment of their betrothal, reinforces his militant and chivalric identity; “he shows us that the impediments to his union with Rowena have never been important. It is the impossible union with Rebecca that drives him, and with it the real action of the novel” (xxi). However, Bois-Guilbert attempts to break his chivalric self-love by means of his passion for Rebecca, “yonder girl hath wellnigh unmanned me.” (pg. 401-402)
In the end, Bois-Guilbert, through his death, renounces his knighthood and chivalry but forever declares his love for Rebecca. Rebecca presents the theme of romance in different forms. To the characters’ Bois-Guilbert and Ivanhoe, Rebecca is the symbol of white man’s attraction and resistance to the prospect of interracial relationships. Bois-Guilbert represents the “white man’s attraction” and is presented with an evident infatuation with Rebecca; “ready to give up fame, honor, and everything that has heretofore constituted his heroic, chivalric identity,”(xx) scorning and even prepared to reject most Christian dogmas in order to take the Jewess at any odds (pg.398):
“No, damsel!” said the proud Templar, springing up, “thou shalt not thus impose on me: if I renounce it for thy sake, and we will escape in company. Listen to me Rebecca,” he said, again softening his tone; “England-Europe-is not the world…we league ourselves than endure the scorn of the bigots whom we contemn.”
Despite Rebecca’s rejections, Bois-Guilbert at no time ceases his desire for her, and literally dies because of her rejection. Ivanhoe’s platonic yet romantic relationship with Rebecca outlines his own ambivalence of his first cultural overpass of leaving his Saxon household to follow a Norman king. Rebecca is, for Ivanhoe, his attraction and resistance to her desirable, exotic, yet ostracized racial identity.
Anti-Semitism has been in English culture for centuries. Scott writes secondary characters that, through actions and words, scorn Isaac of York, Rebecca’s father, and attempt to profit at his expense (page 216).
“‘Have mercy on me, noble knight!’" exclaimed Isaac; ‘I am old, and poor, and helpless. It were unworthy to triumph over me—It is a poor deed to crush a worm.’ ‘Old thou mayst be,’ replied the knight; ‘more shame to their folly who have suffered thee to grow grey in usury and knavery—Feeble thou mayst be, for when had a Jew either heart or hand—But rich it is well known thou art.’”
Isaac is with described with negative stereotypes of Jews within Ivanhoe; however, his daughter Rebecca, through branded as a witch, defies all by daring to love a Christian Knight, Ivanhoe and questioning his notions of chivalry itself (page 293):
“Is there such a virtue in the rude rhymes of a wandering bard, that domestic love, kindly affection, peace and happiness, are so wildly bartered, to become hero of those ballads which vagabond minstrels to sing to drunken churls over their evening ale?”
. This bold gesture outlines the immorality in Anti-Semitism that Scott was trying to convey to his readers. Rebecca calls England “a land of war and blood, surrounded by hostile neighbours, and distracted by internal factions” (pg. 462).
The character Rebecca itself, shows Scott's evident sympathy for Jews suffering at the hands of Christians. She defies the stereotypes set against her, and the injustice of Anti-Semitism. In spite of the discrimination that she feels, Rebecca shows herself to be an imperative model of human goodness. All traits put into place, by Scott, to challenge Anti-Semitic stereotypes. Readers find it ironic that the Jews of the novel fund both Ivanhoe’s appearance at the Ashby tournament and heal his wounds after it. During this period of time, no group was greater persecuted than the Jews (chp. 5):
"Upon the slightest and most unreasonable pretenses, as well as upon accusations the most absurd and groundless, their persons and property were exposed to every turn of popular fury; for Norman, Saxon, Dane, and Briton, however adverse these races were to each other, contended which should look with greatest detestation upon a people whom it was accounted a point of religion to hate, to revile, to despise, to plunder, and to persecute."
Rebecca’s life and actions within Ivanhoe, portrays the major themes of this novel. Her presence helps the themes chivalry, romance, and Anti-Semitism stay jointly. While knights defend their honor and prose, it is the Jews who hold the world of Ivanhoe together, and Rebecca who is the main vessel that fastens the themes together. Rebecca’s defiance of injustice inspires hope within reader’s who admire Rebecca for her choice of religion over all.
There is much controversy surrounding Scott’s representation of Jews in Ivanhoe, but Scott paints Rebecca, our Jewess heroine, in a sympathetic and positive manner which proves that Anti-Semitism, an impression that is commonly prevalent during Scott’s time, is a racist and unjustified notion. Rebecca is the agent that demonstrates that a Jew can reveal qualities of romance and chivalry that the Christian is noted for. Rebecca is an outstanding character whose humility defies all.