How do classes work in JavaScript?

JavaScript classes are syntactic sugar. Here I show how to de-sugar the class notation into traditional prototype-based JavaScript. If you don’t know how prototypes work in JavaScript, first read how the dot works, then how function(){} and new work.

Let’s start from an empty class, like class Logger { }. This is just sugar for a constructor function function Logger() { }. You then instantiate and use it in the normal way with new.

The constructor, by default, has no parameters and does no special initialization. To change this, you must define a method called constructor:

class Logger {
  constructor(prefix = "> ") { 
    this.prefix = prefix; 
  }
}

// IS SUGAR FOR ...

function Logger(prefix) {
  this.prefix = prefix;
};

Other methods are attached to the prototype, like this:

class Logger {
  // ...
  log(line) {
    console.log(this.prefix + line);
  }
}

// IS SUGAR FOR ...

Logger.prototype.log = function(line) {
  console.log(this.prefix + line);
};

Notice above that we write this.prefix. If you come from e.g. Java, you might expect you can write foo in a method as a shorthand for this.foo. Thankfully, JavaScript does not have this design mistake! If you want to access a property, you are required to write this.foo, and if you want to call another method, you are required to write this.foo().

You can also write static methods. These are attached to the constructor function itself, rather than to its prototype:

class Logger {
  // ...
  static version() { return "1.0.0"; }
}

// IS SUGAR FOR ...

Logger.version = function() { return "1.0.0"; };

Now let’s write a subclass, FileLogger. For now, it will just keep the same behavior as Logger:

class FileLogger extends Logger { }

// IS SUGAR FOR ...

function FileLogger(...args) {
  return Logger.call(this, ...args) || this;
}

Object.setPrototypeOf(FileLogger.prototype, Logger.prototype);
Object.setPrototypeOf(FileLogger, Logger);

Suddenly things are a bit subtler! The constructor of a subclass has to call the superclass constructor, so that the new object is initialized properly. It also has to deal with the possibility that the superclass constructor returns an object. Normal JavaScript constructors are allowed to return an object, to be used instead of the this value passed in. This is rare/unusual in classical JavaScript.

We set up a prototype chain from FileLogger.prototype to Logger.prototype. This is normal, and makes inherited instance methods work. But notice we also make the FileLogger a child of Logger: this is necessary for inherited static methods. You can call FileLogger.version(), which will call the inherited Logger.version().

The most confusing part of JavaScript classes is super. Original JavaScript had no super keyword or functionality; you had to build it yourself. In JavaScript classes, the super keyword is overloaded and means two rather different things. The first form is in property accesses or method calls, like this:

class FileLogger extends Logger {
  // ...
  log(s) {
    super.log(s);
    fs.appendFileSync(this.file, this.toLine(s)+'\n');
  }
}

// IS SUGAR FOR ...

FileLogger.prototype.log = function(s) {
  Logger.prototype.log.call(this, s);
  fs.appendFileSync(this.file, this.toLine(s) + "\n");
};

The second form of super is as a function, like super(x,y,z). This form is only available in a constructor, and it is mandatory in subclass constructors. You may first encounter its weirdness when reading a runtime error like this:

ReferenceError: Must call super constructor in derived class before accessing 'this' or returning from derived constructor

Here’s an example of how to interpret super as a function call:

class FileLogger extends Logger {
  constructor(file) {
    console.log("In subclass constructor");
    super("");
    this.file = file;
  }
}

// IS SUGAR FOR ...

function FileLogger(file) {
  // Code before super(...) is fine, as long as it doesn't use `this`.
  // We can't use `this` because it's not yet initialized by the superclass constructor.
  console.log("In subclass constructor");

  // Call super(""), **potentially getting a new object!**
  const _this = Logger.call(this, "") || this;

  // We can now use `this`, 
  // but referring to the potentially-new object from the superclass constructor.
  _this.file = file;

  // Always use `return` due to the (possibly) new object.
  return _this;
}
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Tagged #programming, #javascript. All content copyright James Fisher 2020. This post is not associated with my employer. Found an error? Edit this page.