I've read most of Jane Austen's books ... perhaps all of them. They're so tangled up in my head with multiple re-watchings of the movies that I'm just not sure anymore. I'm currently re-reading Pride and Prejudice for (at least) the second time, and being reminded that I still think Mr. Bennet is possibly Austen's greatest character. Unsurprisingly, most people prefer Elizabeth Bennet, or Mr. Darcy, or perhaps one of the Dashwood sisters (Sense and Sensibility). All wonderful characters, but that's to be expected with one of the world's greatest writers in the process of creating two of the English language's most enduring classics. Mr. Bennet is arguably of lesser importance than these characters, but I love his sense of humour - even when it can be a bit cruel.
Early in the book, Mr. Bennet reads a letter from Mr. Collins to his family. While everyone else is still worrying about the entail (a period legal term that matters greatly in context), it's Lizzy who spots the character coming through the writing:
"He must be an oddity, I think," said she. "I cannot make him out. There is something very pompous in his style. And what can he mean by apologising for being next in the entail? We cannot suppose he would help it if he could. Could he be a sensible man, sir?"
"No, my dear, I think not. I have great hopes of finding him quite the reverse. There is a mixture of servility and self-importance in his letter, which promises well. I am impatient to see him."
And there's Mr. Bennet: enjoying the discomfort of his family, appreciating the intelligence of his favourite daughter, and looking forward to meeting a man he's already correctly assessed as a pompous moron.
He is probably Austen's most ferociously intelligent character, but she's made sure he's far more than that: he's acerbic, he's regretful of his poor planning (assuming he would have a son that would save his daughters from the entail), both regretful of and resigned to having married a once beautiful but not terribly bright wife, he loves his library, and he's a bit lazy about certain things. I love Lizzy, Jane, Darcy, and Bingley, but Mr. Bennet has as much to do with this re-reading as any of them.