JavaScript's prototype-based inheritance is interesting and has its uses, but sometimes one just wants to express classical inheritance, familiar from C++ and Java. This need has been recognized by the ECMAScript committee and classes are being discussed for inclusion in the next version of the standard.

It was surprisingly hard for me to find a good and simple code sample that shows how to cleanly and correctly express inheritance with ES5 (a lot of links discuss how to implement the pre-ES5 tools required for that) and explains why the thing works. Mozilla's Object.Create reference came close, but not quite there because it still left some open questions.

Hence this short post. Without further ado, the following code defines a parent class named Shape with a constructor and a method, and a derived class named Circle that has its own method:

// Shape - superclass
// x,y: location of shape's bounding rectangle
function Shape(x, y) {
  this.x = x;
  this.y = y;

// Superclass method
Shape.prototype.move = function(x, y) {
  this.x += x;
  this.y += y;

// Circle - subclass
function Circle(x, y, r) {
  // Call constructor of superclass to initialize superclass-derived members., x, y);

  // Initialize subclass's own members
  this.r = r;

// Circle derives from Shape
Circle.prototype = Object.create(Shape.prototype);
Circle.prototype.constructor = Circle;

// Subclass methods. Add them after Circle.prototype is created with
// Object.create
Circle.prototype.area = function() {
  return this.r * 2 * Math.PI;

The most interesting part here, the one that actually performs the feat of inheritance is these two lines, so I'll explain them a bit:

Circle.prototype = Object.create(Shape.prototype);
Circle.prototype.constructor = Circle;

The first line is the magic - it sets up the prototype chain. To understand it, you must first understand that "the prototype of an object" and "the .prototype property of an object" are different things. If you don't, go read on that a bit. The first line, interpreted very technically, says: the prototype of new objects created with the Circle constructor is an object whose prototype is the prototype of objects created by Shape constructor. Yeah, that's a handful. But it can be simplified as: each Circle has a Shape as its prototype.

What about the second line? While not strictly necessary, it's there to preserve some useful invariants, as we'll see below. Since the assignment to Circle.prototype kills the existing Circle.prototype.constructor (which was set to Circle when the Circle constructor was created), we restore it.

Let's whip up a JavaScript console and load that code inside, to quickly try some stuff:

> var shp = new Shape(1, 2)
> [shp.x, shp.y]
[1, 2]
> shp.move(1, 1)
> [shp.x, shp.y]
[2, 3]

... but we're here for the circles:

> var cir = new Circle(5, 6, 2)
> [cir.x, cir.y, cir.r]
[5, 6, 2]
> cir.move(1, 1)
> [cir.x, cir.y, cir.r]
[6, 7, 2]
> cir.area()

So far so good, a Circle initialized itself correctly using the Shape constructor; it responds to the methods inherited from Shape, and to its own area method too.

Let's check that the prototype shenanigans worked as expected:

> var shape_proto = Object.getPrototypeOf(shp)
> var circle_proto = Object.getPrototypeOf(cir)
> Object.getPrototypeOf(circle_proto) === shape_proto

Great. Now let's see what instanceof has to say:

> cir instanceof Shape
> cir instanceof Circle
> shp instanceof Shape
> shp instanceof Circle

Finally, here are some things we can do with the constructor property that wouldn't have been possible had we not preserved it:

> cir.constructor === Circle
  // Create a new Circle object based on an existing Circle instance
> var new_cir = new cir.constructor(3, 4, 1.5)
> new_cir
Circle {x: 3, y: 4, r: 1.5, constructor: function, area: function}

A lot of existing code (and programmers) expect the constructor property of objects to point back to the constructor function used to create them with new. In addition, it is sometimes useful to be able to create a new object of the same class as an existing object, and here as well the constructor property is useful.

So that is how we express classical inheritance in JavaScript. It is very explicit, and hence on the long-ish side. Hopefully the future ES standards will provide nice sugar for succinct class definitions.


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