Ethan and Mattie's love for each other is not selfish or carnal; it represents instead the deep human longing for spiritual connection with another. When Ethan and Mattie first meet, each lives in a state of personal loneliness. Ethan is trapped in a cold, sterile relationship with Zeena, one that has extinguished almost every spark of life within him. He lives in the world isolated from human warmth and communion. Mattie is alone in the world, also--an orphan with no home or close relationships. Ethan and Mattie fall in love when they become true companions. With each other, they are no longer lonely. Ethan is amazed when Mattie comes into his life. He had not believed there was anyone else in the world who could say what he felt most deeply.
Compassion plays an integral role in their relationship, as well, and it is a kind of love of its own. Ethan strives to ease Mattie's hard labors in the house and to reassure her when she feels afraid. He tries to take the sting out of Zeena's hurtful comments to her. He comforts her when she despairs. Mattie feels Ethan's pain as if it were her own. She weeps for him, as well as for herself. The compassion that is so significant in their relationship is expressed by Mattie shortly before they attempt suicide. Through her tears, she tells Ethan that he was the only one who was ever good to her.