What does Faulkner's use of italics in "Barn Burning" signal to the reader?

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Italic is commonly used in fiction to denote emphasis, and it is also used to indicate the title of a work. William Faulkner uses italics differently in "Barn Burning," using them instead of quotation marks to indicate internal thought.

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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...

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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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Faulkner employs italics as a visual clue for the reader. What does this form of punctuation always signal in "Barn Burning"?

This question is more complicated than it sounds. Even though Italics are usually pretty reliable to indicate a break with the narrative in general (they may indicate an internal monologue for instance), a lot depends on who has edited the text.Italics are not a form of punctution like commas or hyphens, but a change in font that denote a change in the pattern of expression.

Especially when it comes to Faulkner, publishers and editors have tackled his writings in different ways. I think one can only answer this question in a careful and comparative fashion by looking at the publication of a certain text and by comparing it to Faulkner's original. Most of his publicicized works keep his Italics, but some insert different forms of punctuation ( Absalom,Absalom for instance).

That being said, there is no sure way of reading Faulkner's Italics.

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Faulkner employs italics as a visual clue for the reader. What does this form of punctuation always signal in "Barn Burning"?

Many times during this short story by William Faulkner, the author uses italicized areas to highlight Sarty's thoughts and feelings.  Throughout the novel Sarty doesn't always say what he is feeling because of his sense of loyalty, love and fear of his father.  His growing maturity and moral conflicts increase in the progression of the story.  Since the story is told from Sarty's point of view, rather than stop and explain each time he is having an internal conflict with the action of the story Faulkner puts Sarty's feelings and thoughts into italics so the reader is immediately aware of what we are reading.

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