In Pride and Prejudice, why does Elizabeth insist on going on foot to Netherfield when Jane is sick?
Pride and Prejudice
by Jane Austen
Miss Bennet had slept ill, and though up, was very feverish and not well enough to leave her room. Elizabeth was glad to be taken to her immediately; and Jane, who had only been withheld by the fear of giving alarm or inconvenience, from expressing in her note how much she longed for such a visit, was delighted at her entrance. She was not equal, however, to much conversation, and when Miss Bingley left them together, could attempt little beside expressions of gratitude for the extraordinary kindness she was treated with. Elizabeth silently attended her. When breakfast was over, they were joined by the sisters, and Elizabeth began to like them herself, when she saw how much affection and solicitude they shewed for Jane.
The apothecary came, and having examined his patient, said, as might be supposed, that she had caught a violent cold, and that they must endeavour to get the better of it; advised her to return to bed, and promised her some draughts. The advice was followed readily, for the feverish symptoms increased, and her head ached acutely. (Chapter 7 , Volume I)
It is not so much a matter of insisting "on going on foot" as it is a matter of insisting on going. Elizabeth had three modes of transportation available to her: (1) the family carriage and work horses to pull it; (2) riding horses; (3) going on foot. As the horses were at work on the farm the day of Jane's message stating her illness and as Elizabeth "was no horse-woman," she was left with only one out of three options: to go on foot.
Elizabeth, feeling really anxious, was determined to go to her, though the carriage was not to be had; and as she was no horse-woman, walking was her only alternative.
To be precise: Elizabeth did not "insist on going on foot to Netherfield." Elizabeth had one of three options available to her and took it: walking, or going on foot. Now let's look at the real question in this situation: Why did Elizabeth insist on going to Netherfield to see Jane?
The answer is muddled by Mr. and Mrs. Bennet's character flaws: their habits of neglect and overbearing foolishness, respectively. Mr. Bennet has the bad habit of sitting back in cynical scorn as Mrs. Bennet and his daughters behave foolishly, yes, even Elizabeth, with her proud prejudice. Mrs. Bennet has the bad habit of proclaiming things to be what she has decided they will be; this is the trait that got Jane caught in a rainstorm in the first place. On top of this, Mary has the bad habit of spouting ill-judged and ill-understood platitudes under the guise of wisdom.
With the three of these folks reacting to Jane's message that declared and downplayed her illness, "there is not much the matter with me," it is hard to get a realistic perspective on the seriousness of Jane's situation. Two clues help with this and help us understand why Elizabeth insisted on going to Jane.
The first clue is that Elizabeth, though a flawed character, is our reliable focalization point: except for Mr. Darcy and her own family, Elizabeth has sound perceptions. Thus her reaction in this melee is the trustworthy one that is to guide our understanding.
The second clue is Jane's own words in her message. She says her illness "is to be imputed to my getting wet through yesterday." This remark is considered in light of what we know about Jane's character traits: she is kind, gentle, beloved, more noble and generous than Elizabeth, and less likely to look at the bad side of a situation. Therefore if gentle-spoken Jane abandons understatement and says something so very much like bitter irony as "to be imputed to my getting wet through yesterday," then we must conclude she is very ill indeed.
It is this clue from Jane that explains Elizabeth "feeling really anxious." It explains why Elizabeth "was determined to go to" Jane. This is why Elizabeth doesn't merely indulge a wish to see Jane but rather declares a resolution to see her: "She declared her resolution."
walking was her only alternative. She declared her resolution.
To answer precisely: Elizabeth insisted on going to Netherfield to see Jane because she was genuinely concerned about Jane's health and comfort. She knew Jane so well that the slight ironic bitterness in her tone revealed a situation of greater consequence than she, in her understated and gentle manner, was willing to state. This analysis of the two clues and Elizabeth's reliability is confirmed after Elizabeth gets to Netherfield:
[the apothecary said] that she had caught a violent cold, and that they must endeavour to get the better of it; advised her to return to bed, and promised her some draughts ... for the feverish symptoms increased ...
When Jane is invited for dinner at Netherfield, Mrs. Bennet refuses to provide her with a carriage, hoping that because it is supposed to rain Jane will be forced to spend the night. However, because Jane gets caught in the rain, she falls ill and is forced to stay at Netherfield until she recovers. Upon hearing that Jane is ill, Elizabeth walks to Netherfield in order to go nurse her sister. Miss Bingley and Mrs.Hurst (Bingley's sisters) are scandalized that Elizabeth walked so far alone in the mud. Seeing that Jane would like Elizabeth to stay with her, Bingley's sisters invite Elizabeth to remain at Netherfield until Jane recovers.