5.7. Advanced Special Class Methods

Python has more special methods than just __getitem__ and __setitem__. Some of them let you emulate functionality that you may not even know about.

This example shows some of the other special methods in UserDict.

Example 5.16. More Special Methods in UserDict

    def __repr__(self): return repr(self.data)     1
    def __cmp__(self, dict):                       2
        if isinstance(dict, UserDict):            
            return cmp(self.data, dict.data)      
            return cmp(self.data, dict)           
    def __len__(self): return len(self.data)       3
    def __delitem__(self, key): del self.data[key] 4
1 __repr__ is a special method that is called when you call repr(instance). The repr function is a built-in function that returns a string representation of an object. It works on any object, not just class instances. You're already intimately familiar with repr and you don't even know it. In the interactive window, when you type just a variable name and press the ENTER key, Python uses repr to display the variable's value. Go create a dictionary d with some data and then print repr(d) to see for yourself.
2 __cmp__ is called when you compare class instances. In general, you can compare any two Python objects, not just class instances, by using ==. There are rules that define when built-in datatypes are considered equal; for instance, dictionaries are equal when they have all the same keys and values, and strings are equal when they are the same length and contain the same sequence of characters. For class instances, you can define the __cmp__ method and code the comparison logic yourself, and then you can use == to compare instances of your class and Python will call your __cmp__ special method for you.
3 __len__ is called when you call len(instance). The len function is a built-in function that returns the length of an object. It works on any object that could reasonably be thought of as having a length. The len of a string is its number of characters; the len of a dictionary is its number of keys; the len of a list or tuple is its number of elements. For class instances, define the __len__ method and code the length calculation yourself, and then call len(instance) and Python will call your __len__ special method for you.
4 __delitem__ is called when you call del instance[key], which you may remember as the way to delete individual items from a dictionary. When you use del on a class instance, Python calls the __delitem__ special method for you.
In Java, you determine whether two string variables reference the same physical memory location by using str1 == str2. This is called object identity, and it is written in Python as str1 is str2. To compare string values in Java, you would use str1.equals(str2); in Python, you would use str1 == str2. Java programmers who have been taught to believe that the world is a better place because == in Java compares by identity instead of by value may have a difficult time adjusting to Python's lack of such “gotchas”.

At this point, you may be thinking, “All this work just to do something in a class that I can do with a built-in datatype.” And it's true that life would be easier (and the entire UserDict class would be unnecessary) if you could inherit from built-in datatypes like a dictionary. But even if you could, special methods would still be useful, because they can be used in any class, not just wrapper classes like UserDict.

Special methods mean that any class can store key/value pairs like a dictionary, just by defining the __setitem__ method. Any class can act like a sequence, just by defining the __getitem__ method. Any class that defines the __cmp__ method can be compared with ==. And if your class represents something that has a length, don't define a GetLength method; define the __len__ method and use len(instance).

While other object-oriented languages only let you define the physical model of an object (“this object has a GetLength method”), Python's special class methods like __len__ allow you to define the logical model of an object (“this object has a length”).

Python has a lot of other special methods. There's a whole set of them that let classes act like numbers, allowing you to add, subtract, and do other arithmetic operations on class instances. (The canonical example of this is a class that represents complex numbers, numbers with both real and imaginary components.) The __call__ method lets a class act like a function, allowing you to call a class instance directly. And there are other special methods that allow classes to have read-only and write-only data attributes; we'll talk more about those in later chapters.

Further Reading on Special Class Methods