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Java in a Nutshell

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Inner Classes and Other New Language Features

5.3 Member Classes

While nested top-level classes are nested within a containing class, we've seen that they are still top-level classes, and that the nesting is purely a matter of organizational convenience. The same is not true of member classes, however. These classes are also nested, but they are not declared static, and in this case, the nesting is significant. The main features of member classes are:

  • Every instance of a member class is internally associated with an instance of the class that defines or contains the member class.

  • The methods of a member class can implicitly refer to the fields defined within the member class, as well as those defined by any enclosing class, including private fields of the enclosing class.

Like nested top-level classes, member classes are commonly used for helper classes required by the enclosing class. You use a member class instead of a nested top-level class when the member class requires access to the instance fields of the enclosing class, or when every instance of the helper class must refer to an instance of the enclosing class. When you use a member class, this reference from member class to enclosing class is implemented automatically for you.

Let's return to the LinkedList example that we saw above. Suppose we want to add the ability to loop through the elements in the linked list using the java.util.Enumeration interface. To do this, we define a separate class that implements this interface, and then add a method to the LinkedList class that returns an instance of the separate Enumeration class. Example 5.3 shows a typical Java 1.0-style implementation. [3]

[3] For simplicity, this example implements a very simple Enumeration class that is not thread-safe and that may return incorrect results if items are added to or removed from the list while an Enumeration object is in use.

Example 5.3: A LinkedList Enumerator, as a Separate Top-Level Class

import java.util.*;
public class LinkedList {
  // Our nested top-level interface.  Body omitted here...
  public interface Linkable { ... } 
  // The head of the list.
  Linkable head;  
  // Method bodies omitted here.
  public void addToHead(Linkable node) { ... }
  public Linkable removeHead() { ...  }
  // This method returns an Enumeration object for this LinkedList.
  public Enumeration enumerate() { 
    return new LinkedListEnumerator(this); 
// This class defines the Enumeration type we use to list the elements in
// a LinkedList.  Note that each LinkedListEnumerator object is associated
// with a particular LinkedList object which is passed to the constructor.
class LinkedListEnumerator implements Enumeration {
  private LinkedList container;
  private LinkedList.Linkable current;
  public LinkedListEnumerator(LinkedList l) { 
    container = l;
    current = container.head; 
  public boolean hasMoreElements() { return (current != null); }
  public Object nextElement() {
    if (current == null) throw new NoSuchElementException("LinkedList");
    Object value = current;
    current = current.getNext();
    return value;

The point to notice about the LinkedListEnumerator class in Example 5.3 is that we must explicitly pass a LinkedList object to its constructor.

The problem with Example 5.3 is that LinkedListEnumerator is defined as a separate top-level class, when it really would be more elegant to define it as part of the LinkedList class itself. In Java 1.1, this is easily done using a member class, as shown in Example 5.4.

Example 5.4: A LinkedList Enumerator, as a Member Class

import java.util.*;
public class LinkedList 
  // Our nested top-level interface.  Body omitted here...
  public interface Linkable { ... } 
  // The head of the list.  
  // This field could be private except for inner class-related compiler bugs.
  /* private */ Linkable head;  
  // Method bodies omitted here.
  public void addToHead(Linkable node) { ... }
  public Linkable removeHead() { ...  }
  // This method returns an Enumeration object for this LinkedList.
  // Note: no LinkedList object is explicitly passed to the constructor.
  public Enumeration enumerate() { return new Enumerator(); }
  // And here is the implementation of the Enumeration interface,
  // defined as a private member class.
  private class Enumerator implements Enumeration {
    Linkable current;
    // Note: the constructor implicitly refers to 'head' in containing class.
    public Enumerator() { current = head; }
    public boolean hasMoreElements() {  return (current != null); }
    public Object nextElement() {
      if (current == null) throw new NoSuchElementException("LinkedList");
      Object value = current;
      current = current.getNext();
      return value;

In this version of the example, notice how the Enumerator class is nested within the LinkedList class. There is a real elegance to defining the helper class so close to where it is used by the containing class. [4] Of course, if you compiled this example you'd find that the Enumerator member class is compiled to a file named LinkedList$Enumerator.class--while one class is nested within the other in source code form, the same is not true of their compiled byte-code forms.

[4] John Rose, the author of Sun's inner class specification, points out that the advantages of inner classes are not only their elegance, but also their "conciseness, expressiveness, and modularity." He says, "Even prosy-minded programmers who don't care a fig for prissy elegance...will appreciate the fact that they can define their adapter classes right next to the code that needs them, and that they won't have to manually wire the adapter to the main object...and that they won't have to pollute the name space of the package..."

Notice that no instance of the containing LinkedList class is passed to the Enumerator() constructor of the member class. A member class can refer to the members of its enclosing class implicitly; no explicit reference is necessary. Also note that the Enumerator class makes use of the head field of the enclosing class, even though head is declared private. Because the member class is defined within the enclosing class, it is "inside" the class as far as the definition of private fields and methods is concerned. In general, member classes, as well as local and anonymous classes can use the private fields and methods (and classes!) of their containing class. Similarly, a containing class can use the private fields, methods, and classes of the classes it contains. And any two classes that are enclosed by the same third class can access each other's private members. [5]

[5] As noted earlier, however, bugs in javac in current versions of JDK 1.1 prevent this kind of access to private members. Until these bugs are fixed, you should use use package visibility instead of private visibility.

How Member Classes Work

The Enumerator member class of LinkedList can refer to the head field of LinkedList because every instance of a member class implicitly refers to an instance of the class that contains it--this is one of the fundamental features of member classes. It works because the compiler automatically inserts a private field in the member class to hold the required reference to the containing object. The compiler also automatically inserts a hidden argument to all constructors of a member class and passes the containing object as the value of this argument. [6] Once the compiler automatically adds this private field and constructor argument to the code in Example 5.4, you can see that we end up with code very much like what we saw in Example 5.3!

[6] If you're curious about this, use javap -p to disassemble the class file of a member class. It shows you both the inserted private field and the extra constructor argument.

Because the Java Virtual Machine has no notion of inner classes, the Java 1.1 compiler also must take special action to allow member classes (and local and anonymous classes) to use the private fields and methods in their enclosing classes (and vice versa). When a private field or method is used in a way that is allowed in Java 1.1, but is not allowed by the Java interpreter, the compiler automatically inserts a special accessor method to allow the access.

New Syntax for Member Classes

The most important feature of a member class is that it can implicitly refer to fields in its containing object. We saw this in the following constructor from Example 5.4:

public Enumerator() { current = head; }

In this example, head is a field of the LinkedList class, and we assign it to the current field of the Enumerator class. What if we want to make these references explicit? We could try code like this:

public Enumerator() { this.current = this.head; }

This code does not compile, however. this.current is fine; it is an explicit reference to the current field in the newly created Enumerator object. It is the this.head expression that causes the problem--it refers to a field named head in the Enumerator object. There is no such field, so the compiler generates an error. To prevent this problem, Java 1.1 defines new syntax for explicitly referring to the containing instance of the current instance of a member class. If we wanted to be explicit in our constructor, we'd use the new syntax like this:

public Enumerator() { this.current = LinkedList.this.head; }

Similarly, we can use LinkedList.this to refer to the containing LinkedList object itself. In general, the syntax is classname.this, where classname is the name of a containing class. Note that member classes can themselves contain member classes, nested to any depth, and no member class can have the same name as any containing class. Thus, the use of the class name prepended to this is a perfectly general way to refer to any containing instance, as the following nested class example demonstrates:

public class A {
  public String name = "a";
  public class B {
    public String name = "b";
    public class C {
      public String name = "c";
      public void print_names() {
        System.out.println(name);        // "c": name field of class C
        System.out.println(this.name);   // "c": name field of class C
        System.out.println(C.this.name); // "c": name field of class C
        System.out.println(B.this.name); // "b": name field of class B
        System.out.println(A.this.name); // "a": name field of class A

Another new piece of Java 1.1 syntax has to do with the way member classes are created. As we've seen, member classes work the way they do because the compiler automatically adds an argument to each member class constructor. This argument passes a reference to the containing instance to the newly created member instance. Now look again at our definition of the enumerate() method in Example 5.4:

public Enumeration enumerate() { return new Enumerator(); }

Nowhere in this new expression do we specify what the containing instance of the new Enumerator instance should be. In this case, the this object is used as the containing instance, which is what you would expect to happen. It is also what you want to occur in most cases. Nevertheless, Java 1.1 supports a new syntax that lets you explicitly specify the containing instance when creating an instance of a member class. We can make our method more explicit by using the following code:

public Enumeration enumerate() { return this.new Enumerator(); }

The syntax is containing_instance .new, where containing_instance is an expression that evaluates to an instance of the class that defines the desired member class.

Let's look at another example of this syntax. Recall that we declared the Enumerator member class to be private in Example 5.4. We did this for reasons of modularity and encapsulation. Suppose, however, that we had given Enumerator package visibility. In that case, it would be accessible outside of the LinkedList class, and we could instantiate our own copy of it. In order to create an instance of the member class LinkedList.Enumerator, however, we must specify the instance of LinkedList that contains it (and is implicitly passed to its constructor). Our code might look like the following:

// First create a linked list, and add elements to it (omitted).
LinkedList list = new LinkedList();
// Create an enumerator for the linked list.  Note the syntax of the
// 'new' expression.
Enumerator e = list.new Enumerator();

As a more complex example, consider the following lines of code used to create an instance of class C nested within an instance of class B nested within an instance of class A:

A a = new A();        // Create an instance of A.
A.B b = a.new B();    // Create an instance of B within the instance of A.
A.B.C c = b.new C();  // Create an instance of C within the instance of B.
c.print_names();      // Invoke a method of the instance of c.

Note that in the new expressions we name the class to be created relative to the instance that will contain it. That is, we say b.new C(), not b.new A.B.C() .

There is one final piece of new Java 1.1 syntax related to member class instantiation and initialization. Before we consider it, however, let me point out that you should rarely, if ever, need to use this syntax. It represents one of the pathological cases that snuck into the language along with all the elegant features of inner classes.

The new syntax for the new operator described above allows us to specify the containing instance that is passed to the constructor of a member class. There is one circumstance in which a constructor is invoked without the use of the new operator--when it is invoked with the super keyword from a subclass constructor. As strange as it may seem, it is possible for a top-level class to extend a member class. This means that the subclass does not have a containing instance, but that its superclass does. When the subclass constructor invokes the superclass constructor, it must specify the containing instance. It does this by prepending the containing instance and a period to the super keyword. If we had not declared our Enumerator class to be a private member of LinkedList, then we could subclass it. Although it is not clear why we would want to do so, we could write code like the following:

// A top-level class that extends a member class
class SpecialEnumerator extends LinkedList.Enumerator {
  // The constructor must take the LinkedList argument explicitly, 
  // and then must pass it implicitly to the superclass constructor 
  // using the new 'super' syntax.
  public SpecialEnumerator(LinkedList l) { l.super(); }
  // Here we override one or the other of the LinkedList.Enumerator
  // methods to have some kind of special behavior.
     . . .

Scope Versus Inheritance

Having noted that a top-level class can extend a member class, it is important to point out that with the introduction of member classes there are two entirely separate hierarchies that must be considered for any class. The first is the class hierarchy, from superclass to subclass, that defines the fields that a member class inherits. The second is the containment hierarchy, from containing class to contained class, that defines the fields that are in the scope of (and are therefore accessible to) the member class.

The two hierarchies are entirely distinct from each other, and it is important that you do not confuse them. This should not be a problem if you refrain from creating name conflicts where a field or method in a superclass has the same name as a field or method in a containing class. If such a name conflict does arise, however, the inherited field or method hides (i.e., takes precedence over) the field or method of the same name in the containing class or classes. This behavior is logical because when a class inherits a field or method, that field or method effectively becomes part of that class. Therefore, inherited fields and methods are in the scope of the class that inherits them, and take precedence over fields and methods by the same name in enclosing scopes.

Because this can be quite confusing, Java does not leave it to chance that you get it right! Whenever there is a name conflict between an inherited field or method and a field or method in a containing class, Java 1.1 requires that you explicitly specify which one you mean. For example, if a member class B inherits a field named x and is contained within a class A that also defines a field named x, you must use this.x to specify the inherited field, or A.this.x to specify the field in the containing class. An attempt to use the field x without an explicit specification of the desired instance causes a compilation error.

A good way to prevent confusion between the class hierarchy and the containment hierarchy is to avoid deep containment hierarchies. If a class is nested more than two levels deep, it is probably going to cause more confusion than it is worth. Furthermore, if a class has a deep class hierarchy (i.e., if it has many superclass ancestors), consider defining it as a top-level class rather than as a member class.

Restrictions on Member Classes

There are two important restrictions on member classes. First, they cannot have the same name as any containing class or package. This is an important rule, and one that is not shared by fields and methods.

Second, member classes, like all inner classes, cannot contain any static members (fields, methods, or classes). The justification for this restriction is that static fields, methods, and classes are "top level" constructs, and it is therefore reasonable that they only be defined at the "top level"--i.e., within top-level classes. Defining a static, top-level member within a non-top-level member class would simply promote confusion and bad programming style. It is clearer (and therefore required) to define all static members within a top-level class. (Which may be a nested top-level class, of course.)

Member Classes and Visibility Modifiers

A member class, like any member of a class, may be assigned one of three visibility levels: public, [7] protected, or private. If none of these visibility modifiers is specified, the default "package" visibility is used. However, as mentioned earlier, there have been no changes to the Java Virtual Machine to support member classes, and member classes are compiled to class files just like top-level classes are. As far as the Java interpreter is concerned, therefore, member classes, like top-level classes, can only have public or package visibility. Thus, a member class declared protected is actually treated as a public class, and a member class declared private actually has package visibility. While this is unfortunate, and is something you should be aware of, it does not constitute a major security flaw.

[7] Because member classes are nested, and because of their nature as "helper" classes, it is unusual to ever declare a member class public.

Note that this does not mean that you should never declare a member class as protected or private. Although the interpreter cannot enforce these visibility attributes, the desired attributes are noted in the class file. This means that any conforming Java 1.1 compiler can enforce the visibility attributes and prevent the member classes from being accessed in unintended ways.

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