Lots of 19th-century writers grumble about how totally bogus endings in novels usually are. And it's true. At the end of a work of fiction, readers expect one thing and one thing only – a fitting comeuppance for the bad guy (like the climactic, drawn-out, and creatively grotesque death of every action movie villain – picture the Emperor in Star Wars plummeting down that shaft and exploding) and an awesome prize for the good guy (who tends to win the love interest and is generally expected to live happily ever after). This kind of thing works just fine for formulaic novels and movies, but what if the whole point of your writing is to not be formulaic?
Starting with the subtitle of the novel, Thackeray lets us know that he is trying to overturn expectations. Seriously, "A Novel Without a Hero"? When's the last time you came across a story that had no good guys at all? Instead, we get a bunch of flawed characters, some more so than others, but none one-dimensionally horrid or perfect. That's why, when it comes time for the ending, the same old rewards and punishments routine just isn't going to cut it, even if it's what the readers want.
So what does Thackeray do? He goes for a twofold approach.
First part of the maneuver: Thackeray deals with the characters with the same realism that he has been using to describe them throughout the whole work. All along we've been waiting for Becky to really get it, right? After all, she maybe/probably slept with Lord Steyne, and maybe/possibly killed Jos. And she definitely abandoned and neglected her son. At the same time, it seems like Amelia is going to finally get something nice for a change, since her life has been spent pining for a dead husband and taking care of her son and parents without complaining too much.
But we don't get our nice resolutions. Not by a long shot. Amelia does get a new husband in the end...but after so much waiting and yearning and loving from afar, Dobbin gets tired of her pretty quickly. Instead, he loves "his little Janey, of whom he is fonder than of anything in the world – fonder even than of his History of the Punjaub" (67.81) – meaning that he loves a history book more than his wife. Ouch. Meanwhile, Becky doesn't do too badly at all. She ends up in Bath, a nice resort town, where "a very strong party of excellent people consider her to be a most injured woman" (67.81) and where she develops a reputation for pious charity and gets to keep the proceeds of Jos's life insurance!
Second part of the maneuver: After this elaborate and realistically amoral distribution of good and bad things, Thackeray is ready to blow the reader's mind yet again. (Are you ready? Maybe sit down first.) He zooms way out of the action and, suddenly, the characters that were real people just a paragraph ago are nothing more than toys in a puppet show. "Come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out" (67.83) are the last words of the novel. Puppets? That's about as one-dimensional as a fictional character can get! In a few words, Thackeray seems to be undoing all of the work of the previous 800 pages. What gives?
We'll throw out one idea. Maybe this is way to have his cake and eat it, too. See, he knows all about the formulaic, happily-every-after ending we all want. But if he writes this kind of black-and-white ending, then the characters will be revealed as the puppets they are and we will be able to walk away totally unaffected by the whole novel. But this way, when none of the characters one gets her just desserts, we are so scandalized that we cannot help having strong feelings about the characters as though they were real people. Which is when Thackeray can thumb his nose at us and remind us just how constructed everything we are reading really is.