In Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Tell-Tale Heart', the opening sentence is a very strange one. What is its purpose and how has it been constructed?
"True! --nervous --very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?"
(Sentence 1, Paragraph 1)
I agree that the opening sentence is quite strange. I think that is the point! When you read that sentence, you immediately begin to think the narrator might not be all there. He seems mentally unstable. With this one sentence, Poe is creating the two most important parts of exposition- character, and initial conflict.
The sentence tells us that the narrator is anxious about something, and seems to be insane. His use of repeating the words “very” and “nervous” and the strange backward syntax (“dreadfully nervous I had been and am”) creates an anxious feeing in the reader and makes the reader begin to question the reliability of the narrator. We also realize that something must have happened to make the narrator so difference.
The opening is constructed so that we begin "in media res" as if we have stepped into a room in the middle of a conversation. The opening sentence is dialogue: the speaker appears to be responding to someone else's comment. He reacts vehemently: the opening "True!" has an exclamation point behind it, emphasizing his agreement with the apparent assertion that he is nervous. Apparently, too, he has been accused of insanity, because, while the speaker agrees heartily that he is not just nervous, but very, very nervous, he questions why whoever is talking to him might think him "mad."
Starting this way pulls us as readers immediately into the story and puts the spotlight on the speaker, while the questioner stays in the shadows. We wonder who the main character is speaking to and what the preceding conversation might have been like. The nervous cadence of the speaker's speech has an overwrought quality that from the start characterizes him as on edge. This opening raises our curiosity as well as a desire to piece together what is going on.