We learn from the Authors narrative at the very outset of the novel, Pride and Prejudice, that “it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of good fortune must be in want of a wife”. By using “must” rather than might or could all contingency is removed by Jane Austen. This lays down a foundation for the story to come in unequivocal terms and provides an insight for the reader as to the expectations on men in the early nineteenth century.
It is of major significance that Mr Bingley is introduced in chapter 1 as we discover that he is indeed “a single man of large fortune”. We are also presented with Mr and Mrs Bennet who are in possession (coverture) of five single daughters. During this historical period, it was critical that daughters were married as soon as they were of age. The role of women at the time was concentrated very much on that of home maker, infant carer, governess and submissive to men. With this in mind Mrs. Bennet urges Mr. Bennet to go and become acquainted with Mr. Bingley as soon as possible and to “consider your daughters”. It comes as no surprise that Mrs. Bennet’s core imperative is to “see one of” her “daughters happily settled at Netherfield, and all the others equally well married.”
Another underlying reason for the urgency of Mrs Bennet’s appeal to her husband is likely driven by the fact that Longbourn is entailed. Entail or fee tail was part of the English feudal law which restricted the inheritance of an estate to direct male descendants. As Mr Bennet only has five daughters we learn from him that the estate will pass to a cousin, Mr Collins, who “when [Mr Bennet is] dead may turn [them] all out of this house as soon as he pleases”. In this way entail plays an essential role in the novel and generates the necessity shown by Mrs Bennet to get her daughters married.
The opportunity presented by the arrival of Mr Bingley a “good-looking and gentlemanlike” man with “a pleasant countenance” is therefore of consequence to the Bennet’s. Similarly, the arrival in Chapter 13 of Mr. Collins also becomes a focus for Mrs Bennet and her sole project, despite his “deficiency of nature”, then became the insistence of Elizabeth “marrying him”. Her father, perhaps because of his own situation of being “married [to] a woman whose weak understanding and illiberal mind had very early in their marriage put an end to real affection” makes it clear he will not sanction the marriage.
The importance of Mr Bingley stems from the fact that through him the Bennet’s became familiar with Mr Darcy, who as we know becomes a focal character. Mr Darcy is recognized as a “fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien, and the report which was in general circulation within five minutes after his entrance, of his having ten thousand a year”. This difference in social standing is reinforced by both the opinions of Mr Darcy, in his proposal to Elizabeth in Chapter 34, “could you expect me to rejoice in the inferiority of your connections? To congratulate myself on the hope of relations, whose condition in life is so decidedly beneath my own?”, and Lady Catherine, in Chapter 56 who remarks on the notion of a union between Elizabeth and Mr Darcy as forbidden by “honour, decorum, prudence … [and] interest”. This makes Mr Bingley’s entrance to the Meryton area a vital plot hinge for the novel, as a whole.
Not only does the appearance of Mr Bingley provide the basis for Mr Darcy’s introduction, it also has the collateral benefits for all of the Bennet sisters, by creating a reason or excuse for more social gatherings and assemblies in the area – giving rise to the opportunity of meeting young, single men. In addition, the arrival of the militia in Chapter 7 also creates a stimulus for increased dances and merriments. The advantage of these events and the value they deliver for the Bennet girls is made clear by the author “they could talk of nothing but officers”. The improvement in social standing is emphasised by Mrs Bennet, who uses every opportunity at social gatherings, as a platform to both boast about being associated with people of superior class and how it facilitates improved chances for her other girls, “as Jane’s marrying so greatly, must throw them in the way of other rich men”.
There are further subplot reasons for the importance of Mr Bingleys character, stemming from him and his sisters taking up residence at Netherfield. For instance, Mr Bingley links us to Caroline Bingley, whose affection and adoration for Mr Darcy is clear “Miss Bingley’s attention was quite as much engaged in watching Mr Darcy’s progress through his book … perpetually either making some inquiry”. She also plays a pivotal role in the love story between Jane and Charles. Through both Mr Bingley and Col. Fitzwilliam the author provides crucial information concerning the background of Wickham and Darcy’s disagreement.
Finally, the other foremost role Mr Bingley plays is eventually marrying Jane Bennet in Chapter 55, “… at the rapidity and ease with which an affair was finally settled”. This happy marriage provides Jane with the ability to aid her sister Lydia, both monetarily and with a periodic abode ‘’assistance towards discharging their bills. Their manner of living … was unsettled in the extreme … both of them frequently stayed so long that even Bingley’s good humour was overcome”.
To conclude, as we have seen, Mr Bingley’s arrival at Netherfield is of critical importance to the overall storyline. He plays a crucial part by personifying a rich, single man in want of wife which meets the demands of Mr and Mrs Bennet, who have five daughters in want of a husband because of the entail of their property. Clearly his character is vital in the marriage to Jane and benefits the other girls by his associations. Finally, without Mr Bingley, we would arguably not have had the introduction of Mr Darcy, the subplot of Wickham and Lydia or the consternation of Lady Catherine.