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Why the Instance Variable of the Super Class Is Not Overridden in the Sub Class

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Why the Instance Variable of the Super Class Is Not Overridden in the Sub Class

Need help understanding why the instance variable of the super class is not overridden in the subclass? Check out this post where we answer this question.

· Java Zone ·
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When we create a variable in both parent and child classes with the same name and try to access it using a parent's class reference, which is holding a child class's object, then what do we get?

In order to understand this, let us consider the example below where we declare a variable x with the same name in both Parent and Child classes.

class Parent {
    // Declaring instance variable by name `x`
    String x = "Parent`s Instance Variable";

    public void print() {
        System.out.println(x);
    }
}

class Child extends Parent {

    // Hiding Parent class's variable `x` by defining a variable in child class with same name.
    String x = "Child`s Instance Variable";

    @Override
    public void print() {
        System.out.print(x);

        // If we still want to access variable from super class, we do that by using `super.x`
        System.out.print(", " + super.x + "\n");
    }
}


And now, if we try to access x using below code, System.out.println(parent.x) will print:

Parent parent = new Child();
System.out.println(parent.x) // Output -- Parent`s Instance Variable


Well generally, we say that the Child class will override the variable declared in the Parent class, and parent.x will give us whatever the Child's object is holding. Because it is the same thing, it happens while we do the same kind of operation on methods.

But, actually, it is not, and the parent.x will give us the value of the Parent`s Instance Variable, which is declared in the Parent class — but why?

This is because variables in Java do not follow polymorphism and overriding is only applicable to methods, not variables. And when an instance variable in a child class has the same name as an instance variable in a parent class, then the instance variable is chosen from the reference type.

In Java, when we define a variable in a Child class with a name that we have already used to define a variable in the Parent class, the Child class's variable hides the parent's variable, even if their types are different. And this concept is known as variable hiding.

In other words, when the child and parent class both have a variable with the same name, the Child class's variable hides the Parent class's variable. You can read more on variable hiding in the article: What is Variable Shadowing and Hiding in Java.


Variable Hiding Is Not the Same as Method Overriding

While variable hiding looks like overriding, a variable is not all that similar. Overriding is applicable only to methods, while hiding is applicable to variables.

In the case of method overriding, overriding methods completely replaces the inherited methods, so when we try to access the method from the parent's reference by holding the child's object, the method from the child class gets called. You can read more about overriding and how overridden methods completely replace the inherited methods on Everything About Method Overloading Vs Method Overriding and Why We Should Follow Method Overriding Rules.

But in variable hiding, the child class hides the inherited variables instead of replacing, which basically means is that the object of the Child class contains both variables, but the Child's variable hides the Parent's variable. So when we try to access the variable from within the Child class, it will be accessed from the child class.

And if I simplify the section Example 8.3.1.1-3. Hiding of Instance Variables of Java language specification:

When we declare a variable in a Child class, which has the same name, e.g. x as an instance variable in a Parent class, then:

  1. The Child class's object contains both variables (one inherited from the Parent class and another declared in Child itself) but the child class variable hides the parent class's variable.
  2. Because the declaration of x in class Child hides the definition of x in class Parent, within the declaration of class Child, the simple name x always refers to the field declared within class Child. And if the code in methods of theChild class wants to refer to the variable x of the Parent class, then this can be done as super.x.
  3. If we are trying to access the variable outside of the Parent and Child class, then the instance variable is chosen from the reference type. Thus, the expression parent2.x in the following code gives the variable value that belongs to the Parent class, even if it is holding the object of the Child. But,((Child) parent2).xaccesses the value from the Child class because we cast the same reference to Child.

Why Instance Variable Of Super Class Is Not Overridden In Sub Class due to variable shadowing










Why Variable Hiding Is Designed This Way

So, we know that instance variables are chosen from the reference type, not instance type, and polymorphism is not applicable to variables, but the real question is why? Why are variables designed to follow hiding instead of overriding?

This is because variable overriding might break methods inherited from the Parent if we change its type in the Child class.

We know every Child class inherits variables and methods (state and behavior) from its Parent class. Imagine if Java allows variable overriding and we change the type of a variable from int to Object in the Child class. It will break any method using that variable, and because the child has inherited those methods from the Parent, the compiler will give errors in the Child class.

For example:

class Parent {
    int x;
    public int increment() {
        return ++x;
    }
    public int getX() {
        return x;
    }
}

class Child extends Parent {
    Object x;
    // Child is inherting increment(), getX() from Parent and both methods returns an int 
    // But in child class type of x is Object, so increment(), getX() will fail to compile. 
}


If Child.x overrides  Parent.x, how can increment() and getX() work? In the subclass, these methods will try to return a value of a field of the wrong type!

And as mentioned, if Java allows variable overriding, then the  Child's variable cannot substitute the  Parent's variable, and this would break the Liskov Substitutability Principle (LSP).

Why Is the Instance Variable Chosen From a Reference Type Instead of an Instance?

As explained in How Does JVM Handle Method Overloading and Overriding Internally, at compile time, overriding method calls are treated from the reference class only, but all overridden methods get replaced by the overriding method at runtime using a vtable. This phenomenon is called runtime polymorphism.

Similarly, at compile time, variable access is also treated from the reference type, but as we discussed, variables do not follow overriding or runtime polymorphism, so they are not replaced by child class variables at the runtime and still refer to the reference type.

Generally speaking, no one will recommend hiding fields, as it makes code difficult to read and creates confusion. This kind of confusion will not always stick to General Guidelines to create POJOs and encapsulate our fields by declaring them as private and provides getters/setters as required, so the variables are not visible outside that class and the child class cannot access them.

You can find complete code on this GitHub repository. Please feel free to provide your feedback in the comments section below.

Topics:
java ,tutorial ,super class ,sub class ,overriding ,variable hiding ,method overriding

Published at DZone with permission of Naresh Joshi , DZone MVB. See the original article here.

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