Faulkner uses italic in "Barn Burning" as visual clues for the reader. What does this form of punctuation signal?    

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In general, italics are used to emphasize something, or they are used to indicate the title of a formal work. In "Barn Burning," William Faulkner uses italics for a different, but not uncommon, purpose. When readers see the italicized words in this story, we are reading what Sarty is thinking. Faulkner is using the italics in place of quotation marks, and he leaves no doubt that is what he is trying to do, because early in the story Faulkner gives the "he thought" tag after the italicized words.

He aims for me to lie, he thought, again with that frantic grief and despair.

The italics work well to convey to readers that when they are used, Sarty is thinking. By the end of the story, readers have been trained well enough about the italics that Faulkner is able to switch quite quickly between spoken dialogue using quotes and internal thought dialogue using italics, in order to show the rapidfire thought processes and actions of Sarty.

Father. My father, he thought. "He was brave!" he cried suddenly . . .

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Concerning your question about Faulkner's "Barn Burning," first, I've never heard of italics being equated with punctuation, of italics being a form of punctuation.

In "Barn Burning," italics are used in place of punctuation.  Specifically, they serve the purpose quotation marks usually serve.  The italics simply signify Sarty's thoughts.  Italics are used to mark dialogue, albeit dialogue within Sarty's mind.

For example, here's a passage from the opening paragraph--italics included:

He [Sarty] could not see the table where the Justice sat and before which his father and his father's enemy (our enemy he thought in that despair; ourn! mine and his both!  He's my father!) stood, but he could hear them, the two of them that is, because his father had said no word yet:...

The italics are just used as quotation marks. 

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