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Exploring Java

Previous Chapter 5
Objects in Java

5.5 Subclassing and Inheritance

Classes in Java exist in a class hierarchy. A class in Java can be declared as a subclass of another class using the extends keyword. A subclass inherits variables and methods from its superclass and uses them as if they're declared within the subclass itself:

class Animal { 
    float weight; 
    void eat() { 
class Mammal extends Animal { 
    int heartRate; 
    // inherits weight 
    void breathe() { 
    // inherits eat() 

In the above example, an object of type Mammal has both the instance variable weight and the method eat(). They are inherited from Animal.

A class can extend only one other class. To use the proper terminology, Java allows single inheritance of class implementation. Later we'll talk about interfaces, which take the place of multiple inheritance as it's primarily used in C++.

A subclass can, of course, be further subclassed. Normally, subclassing specializes or refines a class by adding variables and methods:

class Cat extends Mammal { 
    boolean longHair; 
    // inherits weight and heartRate 
    void purr() { 
    // inherits eat() and breathe()  

The Cat class is a type of Mammal that is ultimately a type of Animal. Cat objects inherit all the characteristics of Mammal objects and, in turn, Animal objects. Cat also provides additional behavior in the form of the purr() method and the longHair variable. We can denote the class relationship in a diagram, as shown in Figure 5.3.

A subclass inherits all members of its superclass not designated as private. As we'll discuss shortly, other levels of visibility affect what inherited members of the class can be seen from outside of the class and its subclasses, but at a minimum, a subclass always has the same set of visible members as its parent. For this reason, the type of a subclass can be considered a subtype of its parent, and instances of the subtype can be used anywhere instances of the supertype are allowed. For example:

Cat simon = new Cat(); 
Animal creature = simon; 

The Cat simon in the above example can be assigned to the Animal type variable creature because Cat is a subtype of Animal.

Shadowed Variables

In the previous section on methods, we saw that a local variable of the same name as an instance variable hides the instance variable. Similarly, an instance variable in a subclass can shadow an instance variable of the same name in its parent class, as shown in Figure 5.4.

In Figure 5.4, the variable weight is declared in three places: as a local variable in the method foodConsumption() of the class Mammal, as an instance variable of the class Mammal, and as an instance variable of the class Animal. The actual variable selected depends on the scope in which we are working.

In the above example, all variables were of the same type. About the only reason for declaring a variable with the same type in a subclass is to provide an alternate initializer. A more important use of shadowed variables involves changing their types. We could, for example, shadow an int variable with a double variable in a subclass that needs decimal values instead of integer values. We do this without changing the existing code because, as its name suggests, when we shadow variables, we don't replace them but instead mask them. Both variables still exist; methods of the superclass see the original variable, and methods of the subclass see the new version. The determination of what variables the various methods see is static and happens at compile-time.

Here's a simple example:

class IntegerCalculator { 
    int sum; 
class DecimalCalculator extends IntegerCalculator { 
    double sum; 

In this example, we override the instance variable sum to change its type from int to double.[3] Methods defined in the class IntegerCalculator see the integer variable sum, while methods defined in DecimalCalculator see the decimal variable sum. However, both variables actually exist for a given instance of DecimalCalculator, and they can have independent values. In fact, any methods that DecimalCalculator inherits from IntegerCalculator actually see the integer variable sum.

[3] Note that a better way to design our calculators would be to have an abstract Calculator class with two subclasses: IntegerCalculator and DecimalCalculator.

Since both variables exist in DecimalCalculator, we need to reference the variable inherited from IntegerCalculator. We do that using the super reference:

int s = super.sum 

Inside of DecimalCalculator, the super keyword used in this manner refers to the sum variable defined in the superclass. I'll explain the use of super more fully in a bit.

Another important point about shadowed variables has to do with how they work when we refer to an object by way of a less derived type. For example, we can refer to a DecimalCalculator object as an IntegerCalculator. If we do so and then access the variable sum, we get the integer variable, not the decimal one:

DecimalCalculator dc = new DecimalCalculator(); 
IntegerCalculator ic = dc; 
int s = ic.sum;                  // Accesses IntegerCalculator sum 

After this detailed explanation, you may still be wondering what shadowed variables are good for. Well, to be honest, the usefulness of shadowed variables is limited, but it's important to understand the concepts before we talk about doing the same thing with methods. We'll see a different and more dynamic type of behavior with method shadowing, or more correctly, method overriding.

Overriding Methods

In a previous section, we saw we could declare overloaded methods (i.e., methods with the same name but a different number or type of arguments) within a class. Overloaded method selection works the way I described on all methods available to a class, including inherited ones. This means that a subclass can define some overloaded methods that augment the overloaded methods provided by a superclass.

But a subclass does more than that; it can define a method that has exactly the same method signature (arguments and return type) as a method in its superclass. In that case, the method in the subclass overrides the method in the superclass and effectively replaces its implementation, as shown in Figure 5.5. Overriding methods to change the behavior of objects is another form of polymorphism (sub-type polymorphism): the one most people think of when they talk about the power of object-oriented languages.

In Figure 5.5, Mammal overrides the reproduce() method of Animal, perhaps to specialize the method for the peculiar behavior of Mammals giving live birth.[4] The Cat object's sleeping behavior is overridden to be different from that of a general Animal, perhaps to accommodate cat naps. The Cat class also adds the more unique behaviors of purring and hunting mice.

[4] We'll ignore the platypus, which is an obscure nonovoviviparous mammal.

From what you've seen so far, overridden methods probably look like they shadow methods in superclasses, just as variables do. But overridden methods are actually more powerful than that. An overridden method in Java acts like a virtual method in C++. When there are multiple implementations of a method in the inheritance hierarchy of an object, the one in the most derived class always overrides the others, even if we refer to the object by way of a less derived type. In other words, if we have a Cat instance assigned to a variable of the more general type Animal and we call its sleep() method, we get the sleep() method implemented in the Cat class, not the one in Animal:

Cat simon = new Cat(); 
Animal creature = simon; 
creature.sleep();          // Accesses Cat sleep(); 

In other respects, the variable creature looks like an Animal. For example, access to a shadowed variable would find the implementation in the Animal class, not the Cat class. However, because methods are virtual, the appropriate method in the Cat class can be located, even though we are dealing with an Animal object. This means we can deal with specialized objects as if they were more general types of objects and still take advantage of their specialized implementations of behavior.

Much of what you'll be doing when you're writing a Java applet or application is overriding methods defined by various classes in the Java API. For example, think back to the applets we developed in the tutorial in Chapter 2, A First Applet. Almost all of the methods we implemented for those applets were overridden methods. Recall that we created a subclass of Applet for each of the examples. Then we overrode various methods: init() set up our applet, mouseDrag() to handle mouse movement, and paint() to draw our applet.

A common programming error in Java (at least for me) is to miss and accidentally overload a method when trying to override it. Any difference in the number or type of arguments or the return type of a method produces two overloaded methods instead of a single, overridden method. Make it a habit to look twice when overriding methods.

Overridden methods and dynamic binding

In a previous section, I mentioned that overloaded methods are selected by the compiler at compile-time. Overridden methods, on the other hand, are selected dynamically at run-time. Even if we create an instance of a subclass our code has never seen before (perhaps a new object type loaded from the network), any overridden methods that it contains will be located and invoked at run-time to replace those that existed when we last compiled our code.

In contrast, if we load a new class that implements an additional, more specific overloaded method, our code will continue to use the implementation it discovered at compile-time. Another effect of this is that casting (i.e., explicitly telling the compiler to treat an object as one of its assignable types) affects the selection of overloaded methods, but not overridden methods.

Static method binding

Static methods do not belong to any object instance, they are accessed directly through a class name, so they are not dynamically selected at run-time like instance methods. That is why static methods are called "static"--they are always bound at compile time.

A static method in a superclass can be shadowed by another static method in a subclass, as long as the original method was not declared final. However, you can't override a static method with a nonstatic method. In other words, you can't change a static method into an instance method in a subclass.

Dynamic method selection and peformance

When Java has to dynamically search for overridden methods in subclasses, there's a small performance penalty. In languages like C++, the default is for methods to act like shadowed variables, so you have to explicitly declare the methods you want to be virtual. Java is more dynamic, and the default is for all instance methods to be virtual. In Java you can, however, go the other direction and explicitly declare that an instance method can't be overridden, so that it will not be subject to dynamic binding and will not suffer in terms of performance. This is done with the final modifier. We have seen final used with variables to effectively make them constants. When final is applied to a method, it means that that method can't be overridden (in some sense, its implementation is constant). final can also be applied to an entire class, which means the class can't be subclassed.

Compiler optimiziations

When javac, the Java compiler, is run with the -O switch, it performs certain optimizations. It can inline final methods to improve performance (while slightly increasing the size of the resulting class file). private methods, which are effectively final, can also be inlined, and final classes may also benefit from more powerful optimizations.

Another kind of optimization allows you to include debugging code in your Java source without penalty. Java doesn't have a pre-processor, to explicitly control what source is included, but you can get some of the same effects by making a block of code conditional on a constant (i.e., static and final) variable. The Java compiler is smart enough to remove this code when it determines that it won't be called. For example:

static final boolean DEBUG = false;
static void debug (String message) { 
    if (DEBUG) {
        // do other stuff

If we compile the above code using the -O switch, the compiler will recognize that the condition on the DEBUG variable is always false, and the body of the debug() method will be optimized away. But that's not all--since debug() itself is also final it can be inlined, and an empty inlined method generates no code at all. So, when we compile with DEBUG set to false, calls to the debug() method will generate no residual code at all.

Method selection revisited

By now you should have a good, intuitive idea as to how methods are selected from the pool of potentially overloaded and overridden method names of a class. If, however, you are dying for a dry definition, I'll provide one now. If you are satisfied with your understanding, you may wish to skip this little exercise in logic.

In a previous section, I offered an inductive rule for overloaded method resolution. It said that a method is considered more specific than another if its arguments are polymorphically assignable to the arguments of the second method. We can now expand this rule to include the resolution of overridden methods by adding the following condition: to be more specific than another method, the type of the class containing the method must also be assignable to the type of the class holding the second method.

What does that mean? Well, the only classes whose types are assignable are classes in the same inheritance hierarchy. So, what we're talking about now is the set of all methods of the same name in a class or any of its parent or child classes. Since subclass types are assignable to superclass types, but not vice versa, the resolution is pushed, in the way that we expect, down the chain, towards the subclasses. This effectively adds a second dimension to the search, in which resolution is pushed down the inheritance tree towards more refined classes and, simultaneously, towards the most specific overloaded method within a given class.

Exceptions and overridden methods

When we talked about exception handling in Chapter 4, The Java Language, there's one thing I didn't mention because it wouldn't have made sense then. An important restriction on overridden methods is that they must adhere to the throws clause of the parent method's signature. If an overridden method throws an exception, the exception must be of the type specified by the parent or a subtype of that exception. Because the exception can be a subtype of the one specified by the parent, the overridden method can refine the type of exception thrown to go along with its new behavior. For example:

// A more refined exception 
class MeatInedibleException extends InedibleException { ...
class Animal {
    void eat( Food f ) throws InedibleException { ...
class Herbivore extends Animal {
    void eat( Food f ) throws InedibleException { 
        if ( f instanceof Meat )
            throw new MeatInedibleException();

In the example above, Animal specifies that it can throw an InedibleException from its eat() method. Herbivore is a subclass Animal, so it must be able to do this too. However, Herbivore's eat() method actually throws a more specific exception: MeatInedibleException. It can do this because MeatInedibleException is a subtype of InedibleException (remember that Exceptions are classes too). Our calling code's catch clause can therefore be more specific:

Animal creature = ...
try {
    creature.eat( food );
} catch ( MeatInedibleException ) {
    // creature can't eat this food because it's meat
} catch ( InedibleException ) {
    // creature can't eat this food

this and super

The special references this and super allow you to refer to the members of the current object instance or those of the superclass, respectively. We have seen this used elsewhere to pass a reference to the current object and to refer to shadowed instance variables. The reference super does the same for the parents of a class. You can use it to refer to members of a superclass that have been shadowed or overridden. A common arrangement is for an overridden method in a subclass to do some preliminary work and then defer to the method of the superclass to finish the job.

class Animal { 
    void eat( Food f ) throws InedibleException { 
        // consume food
class Herbivore extends Animal { 
    void eat( Food f ) throws InedibleException { 
        // check if edible
        super.eat( f ); 

In the above example, our Herbivore class overrides the Animal eat() method to first do some checking on the food object. After doing its job it simply calls the (otherwise overridden) implementation of eat() in its superclass, using super.

super prompts a search for the method or variable to begin in the scope of the immediate superclass rather than the current class. The inherited method or variable found may reside in the immediate superclass, or in a more distant one. The usage of the super reference when applied to overridden methods of a superclass is special; it tells the method resolution system to stop the dynamic method search at the superclass, instead of in the most derived class (as it otherwise does). Without super, there would be no way to access overridden methods.


As in C++, a cast explicitly tells the compiler to change the apparent type of an object reference. Unlike in C++, casts in Java are checked both at compile- and at run-time to make sure they are legal. Attempting to cast an object to an incompatible type at run-time results in a ClassCastException. Only casts between objects in the same inheritance hierarchy (and as we'll see later, to appropriate interfaces) are legal in Java and pass the scrutiny of the compiler and the run-time system.

Casts in Java affect only the treatment of references; they never change the form of the actual object. This is an important rule to keep in mind. You never change the object pointed to by a reference by casting it; you change only the compiler's (or run-time system's) notion of it.

A cast can be used to narrow the type of a reference--to make it more specific. Often, we'll do this when we have to retrieve an object from a more general type of collection or when it has been previously used as a less derived type. (The prototypical example is using an object in a Vector or Hashtable, as you'll see in Chapter 7, Basic Utility Classes.) Continuing with our Cat example:

Animal creature = ...
Cat simon = ...
creature = simon;        // Okay
// simon = creature;     // Compile time error, incompatible type 
simon = (Cat)creature;   // Okay 

We can't reassign the reference in creature to the variable simon even though we know it holds an instance of a Cat (Simon). We have to perform the indicated cast. This is also called downcasting the reference.

Note that an implicit cast was performed when we went the other way to widen the reference simon to type Animal during the first assignment. In this case, an explicit cast would have been legal, but superfluous.

If casting seems complicated, here's a simple way to think about it. Basically, you can't lie about what an object is. If you have a Cat object, you can cast it to a less derived type (i.e., a type above it in the class hierarchy) such as Animal or even Object, since all Java classes are a subclass of Object. If you have an Object you know is a Cat, you can downcast the Object to be an Animal or a Cat. However, if you aren't sure if the Object is a Cat or a Dog at run-time, you should check it with instanceof before you perform the cast. If you get the cast wrong, Java throws a ClassCastException.

As I mentioned earlier, casting can affect the selection of compile-time items like variables and overloaded methods, but not the selection of overridden methods. Figure 5.6 shows the difference. As shown in the top half of the diagram, casting the reference simon to type Animal (widening it) affects the selection of the shadowed variable weight within it. However, as the lower half of the diagram indicates, the cast doesn't affect the selection of the overridden method sleep().

Using superclass constructors

When we talked earlier about constructors, we discussed how the special statement this() invokes an overloaded constructor upon entry to another constructor. Similarly, the statement super() explicitly invokes the constructor of a superclass. Of course, we also talked about how Java makes a chain of constructor calls that includes the superclass's constructor, so why use super() explicitly? When Java makes an implicit call to the superclass constructor, it calls the default constructor. So, if we want to invoke a superclass constructor that takes arguments, we have to do so explicitly using super().

If we are going to call a superclass constructor with super(), it must be the first statement of our constructor, just as this() must be the first call we make in an overloaded constructor. Here's a simple example:

class Person { 
    Person ( String name ) { 
        //  setup based on name 
class Doctor extends Person { 
    Doctor ( String name, String specialty ) { 
        super( name ); 
        // setup based on specialty 

In this example, we use super() to take advantage of the implementation of the superclass constructor and avoid duplicating the code to set up the object based on its name. In fact, because the class Person doesn't define a default (no arguments) constructor, we have no choice but to call super() explicitly. Otherwise, the compiler would complain that it couldn't find an appropriate default constructor to call. Said another way, if you subclass a class that has only constructors that take arguments, you have to invoke one of the superclass's constructors explicitly from your subclass constructor.

Instance variables of the class are initialized upon return from the superclass constructor, whether that's due to an explicit call via super() or an implicit call to the default superclass constructor.

We can now give the full story of how constructors are chained together and when instance variable initialization occurs. The rule has three parts and is applied repeatedly for each successive constructor invoked.

  • If the first statement of a constructor is an ordinary statement--i.e., not a call to this() or super()--Java inserts an implicit call to super() to invoke the default constructor of the superclass. Upon returning from that call, Java initializes the instance variables of the current class and proceeds to execute the statements of the current constructor.

  • If the first statement of a constructor is a call to a superclass constructor via super(), Java invokes the selected superclass constructor. Upon its return, Java initializes the current class's instance variables and proceeds with the statements of the current constructor.

  • If the first statement of a constructor is a call to an overloaded constructor via this(), Java invokes the selected constructor and upon its return simply proceeds with the statements of the current constructor. The call to the superclass's constructor has happened within the overloaded constructor, either explicitly or implicitly, so the initialization of instance variables has already occurred.

Abstract Methods and Classes

As in C++, a method can be declared with the abstract modifier to indicate that it's just a prototype. An abstract method has no body; it's simply a signature definition followed by a semicolon. You can't directly use a class that contains an abstract method; you must instead create a subclass that implements the abstract method's body.

abstract vaporMethod( String name ); 

In Java, a class that contains one or more abstract methods must be explicitly declared as an abstract class, also using the abstract modifier :

abstract class vaporClass { 
    abstract vaporMethod( String name ); 

An abstract class can contain other, nonabstract methods and ordinary variable declarations; however, it can't be instantiated. To be used, it must be subclassed and its abstract methods must be overridden with methods that implement a body. Not all abstract methods have to be implemented in a single subclass, but a subclass that doesn't override all its superclass's abstract methods with actual, concrete implementations must also be declared abstract.

Abstract classes provide a framework for classes that are to be "filled in" by the implementor. The java.io.InputStream class, for example, has a single abstract method called read(). Various subclasses of InputStream implement read() in their own ways to read from their own sources. The rest of the InputStream class, however, provides extended functionality built on the simple read() method. A subclass of InputStream inherits these nonabstract methods that provide functionality based on the simple read() method that the subclass implements.

It's often desirable to specify only the prototypes for a whole set of methods and provide no implementation. In C++, this would be a purely abstract class. In Java, you should instead use an interface. An interface is like a purely abstract class; it defines a set of methods a class must implement (i.e., the behavior of a class). However, unlike in C++, a class in Java can simply say that it implements an interface and go about implementing those methods. As we'll discuss later, a class that implements an interface doesn't have to inherit from any particular part of the inheritance hierarchy or use a particular implementation.

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