The Tell-Tale First Line
By Jacqueline DoyleIt was Edgar Allan Poe, in his well-known 1842 review of Nathaniel Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales, who insisted that every great short story focuses on a "single effect," and that every word should contribute to that effect—in his words, should "tell." Poe was the first to suggest that if the writer's "very first sentence tend not to the outbringing of this effect, then in his very first step he has committed a blunder." The opening line of "The Tell-Tale Heart" has to be one of the greatest first lines of Poe's short stories, of all short stories. At the heart of his enterprise in the story is a demonstration of how to tell a tale. He begins: "True!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been, and am; but why will you say that I am mad?"
We immediately notice several things. This is direct speech, first-person narration, so we are dealing with a character. The character, and we're not sure why, seems to be addressing us directly, and seems to be starting in the middle of a story. Already he doesn't seem fully rational, ready to conform to the logic of a beginning, middle, and end. We may even feel a bit assaulted by his opening question—by his irrational and immediate presumption of intimacy. He is after all a stranger, who doesn't deem it necessary to introduce himself to us, or to introduce his story.
The first word of the opening sentence is "True!" We already sense the possibility of an unreliable narrator, and thus a story where we will be called upon to read between the lines in order to assess the truth of the narrator's assertions. The tell-tale exclamation point suggests overemphasis, overexcitement perhaps, an impression reinforced by the rest of the sentence.
"True!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been, and am …" The dashes create a spasmodic rhythm that is indeed nervous—not just nervous (we pause to take that in), but "very, very dreadfully nervous." Two dashes and a comma indicate pauses, maybe a gasping for breath. "Very, very dreadfully nervous" seems a burst of thought, someone who is not in control of the pacing or content of his ideas.
"I had been and am" is also peculiar. Why is he distinguishing the past from the present? Why "had been" instead of simply "was"? The syntax is convoluted. The speaker doesn't seem to be thinking straight. He seems unstrung and overwrought.
"… but why will you say that I am mad?" We are backing away from this madman already, who appears to be hyperventilating, paranoid, accusatory. "I never said you were mad," we think, but also, "Someone obviously said you were mad, and they were undoubtedly right." The odd emphasis on "will," coupled with the opening exclamation mark, makes the speaker seem unduly agitated. He is angry at us, but also seems to inhabit the solipsistic universe of the mad. He is muttering, jabbing his finger in the air, ready to grab any passer-by to tell this story.
Immediately he will tell us about the "disease" that has heightened his senses, without ever explaining what it was, and that he can hear "all things in the heaven and in the earth" along with "many things in hell." It's obvious he's a raving lunatic with no self-awareness of his state. He asks what he thinks are rhetorical questions. "How, then, am I mad? Harken! And observe how healthily—how calmly I can tell you the whole story." Poe is asking us to observe how he tells this story of this murder, beginning with an opening line by a diseased narrator who is anything but calm. "My manner had convinced them," the murderer gloats when the police first interrogate him, as Poe calls attention to his manner of telling the story, and the narrator becomes increasingly "nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous," so nervous that in a state of high hysteria he admits to his crime.
"'Villains!' I shrieked, 'dissemble no more! I admit the deed!—tear up the planks!—here, here!—It is the beating of his hideous heart!'" "Here, here!" draws attention to itself, playing also on "Hear, hear!" and the earlier "Harken!" We already guessed something like this from the very opening line, villainous listeners attentive to those exclamation points and jerky rhythms at the beginning of the narrator's keyed-up apologia. The heart of the tale becomes evident from the very first sentence, several pages before the narrator sentences himself to death.