Understanding Python Class Instantiation

Let’s say you have a class Foo:

class Foo(object):
    def __init__(self, x, y=0):
        self.x = x
        self.y = y

What happens when you instantiate it (create an instance of that class)?

f = Foo(1, y=2)

That call to Foo - what function or method is being called there? Most beginners and even many experienced Python programmers will immediately answer that __init__ is called. If you stop to think about it for a second, this is far from being a correct answer.

__init__ doesn’t return an object, but calling Foo(1, y=2) does return an object. Also, __init__ expects a self parameter, but there is no such parameter when calling Foo(1, y=2). There is something more complex at work here. In this post we’ll investigate together what happens when you instantiate a class in Python.

Construction Sequence

Instantiating an object in Python consists of a few stages, but the beauty of it is that they are Pythonic in themselves - understanding the steps gives us a little bit more understanding of Python in general. Foo is a class, but classes in Python are objects too! Classes, functions, methods and instances are all objects and whenever you put parentheses after their name, you invoke their __call__ method. So Foo(1, y=2) is equivalent to Foo.__call__(1, y=2). That __call__ is the one defined by Foo’s class. What is Foo’s class?

>>> Foo.__class__
<class 'type'>

So Foo is an object of type type and calling __call__ returns an object of class Foo. Next, let’s look at what the __call__ method for type looks like. This method is fairly complicated, but we’ll try to simplify it. Below I have pasted both the CPython C and the PyPy Python implementation. I find that looking at the original source code is very interesting, but feel free to skip to my simplification of it below:

CPython

Link to source.

static PyObject *
type_call(PyTypeObject *type, PyObject *args, PyObject *kwds)
{
    PyObject *obj;

    if (type->tp_new == NULL) {
        PyErr_Format(PyExc_TypeError,
                     "cannot create '%.100s' instances",
                     type->tp_name);
        return NULL;
    }

    obj = type->tp_new(type, args, kwds);
    obj = _Py_CheckFunctionResult((PyObject*)type, obj, NULL);
    if (obj == NULL)
        return NULL;

    /* Ugly exception: when the call was type(something),
       don't call tp_init on the result. */
    if (type == &PyType_Type &&
        PyTuple_Check(args) && PyTuple_GET_SIZE(args) == 1 &&
        (kwds == NULL ||
         (PyDict_Check(kwds) && PyDict_Size(kwds) == 0)))
        return obj;

    /* If the returned object is not an instance of type,
       it won't be initialized. */
    if (!PyType_IsSubtype(Py_TYPE(obj), type))
        return obj;

    type = Py_TYPE(obj);
    if (type->tp_init != NULL) {
        int res = type->tp_init(obj, args, kwds);
        if (res < 0) {
            assert(PyErr_Occurred());
            Py_DECREF(obj);
            obj = NULL;
        }
        else {
            assert(!PyErr_Occurred());
        }
    }
    return obj;
}

PyPy

Link to source.

def descr_call(self, space, __args__):
    promote(self)
    # invoke the __new__ of the type
    if not we_are_jitted():
        # note that the annotator will figure out that self.w_new_function
        # can only be None if the newshortcut config option is not set
        w_newfunc = self.w_new_function
    else:
        # for the JIT it is better to take the slow path because normal lookup
        # is nicely optimized, but the self.w_new_function attribute is not
        # known to the JIT
        w_newfunc = None
    if w_newfunc is None:
        w_newtype, w_newdescr = self.lookup_where('__new__')
        if w_newdescr is None:    # see test_crash_mro_without_object_1
            raise oefmt(space.w_TypeError, "cannot create '%N' instances",
                        self)
        w_newfunc = space.get(w_newdescr, self)
        if (space.config.objspace.std.newshortcut and
            not we_are_jitted() and
            isinstance(w_newtype, W_TypeObject)):
            self.w_new_function = w_newfunc
    w_newobject = space.call_obj_args(w_newfunc, self, __args__)
    call_init = space.isinstance_w(w_newobject, self)

    # maybe invoke the __init__ of the type
    if (call_init and not (space.is_w(self, space.w_type) and
        not __args__.keywords and len(__args__.arguments_w) == 1)):
        w_descr = space.lookup(w_newobject, '__init__')
        if w_descr is not None:    # see test_crash_mro_without_object_2
            w_result = space.get_and_call_args(w_descr, w_newobject,
                                               __args__)
            if not space.is_w(w_result, space.w_None):
                raise oefmt(space.w_TypeError,
                            "__init__() should return None")
    return w_newobject

If we ignore error checking for a minute, then for regular class instantiation this is roughly equivalent to:

def __call__(obj_type, *args, **kwargs):
    obj = obj_type.__new__(*args, **kwargs)
    if obj is not None and issubclass(obj, obj_type):
        obj.__init__(*args, **kwargs)
    return obj

__new__ allocates memory for the object, constructs it as an “empty” object and then __init__ is called to initialize it.

In conclusion:

  1. Foo(*args, **kwargs) is equivalent to Foo.__call__(*args, **kwargs).
  2. Since Foo is an instance of type, Foo.__call__(*args, **kwargs) calls type.__call__(Foo, *args, **kwargs).
  3. type.__call__(Foo, *args, **kwargs) calls type.__new__(Foo, *args, **kwargs) which returns obj.
  4. obj is then initialized by calling obj.__init__(*args, **kwargs).
  5. obj is returned.

Customization

Now we turn our attention to the __new__ method. Essentially, it is the method responsible for actual object creation. We won’t go in detail into the base implementation of __new__. The gist of it is that it allocates space for the object and returns it. The interesting thing about __new__ is that once you realize what it does, you can use it to customize instance creation in interesting ways. It should be noted that while __new__ is a static method, you don’t need to declare it with @staticmethod - it is special-cased by the Python interpreter.

A nice example of the power of __new__ is using it to implement a Singleton class:

class Singleton(object):
    _instance = None
    
    def __new__(cls, *args, **kwargs):
        if cls._instance is None:
            cls._instance = super().__new__(cls, *args, **kwargs)
        return cls._instance

Then:

>>> s1 = Singleton()
... s2 = Singleton()
... s1 is s2
True

Notice that in this Singleton implementation, __init__ will be called each time we call Singleton(), so care should be taken.

Another similar example is implementing the Borg design pattern:

class Borg(object):
    _dict = None

    def __new__(cls, *args, **kwargs):
        obj = super().__new__(cls, *args, **kwargs)
        if cls._dict is None:
            cls._dict = obj.__dict__
        else:
            obj.__dict__ = cls._dict
        return obj

Then:

>>> b1 = Borg()
... b2 = Borg()
... b1 is b2
False
>>> b1.x = 8
... b2.x
8

One final note - the examples above show the power of __new__, but just because you can use it, doesn’t mean you should:

__new__ is one of the most easily abused features in Python. It’s obscure, riddled with pitfalls, and almost every use case I’ve found for it has been better served by another of Python’s many tools. However, when you do need __new__, it’s incredibly powerful and invaluable to understand.

– Arion Sprague, Python’s Hidden New

It is rare to come across a problem in Python where the best solution was to use __new__. The trouble is that if you have a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail - and you might “suddenly” come across many problem that __new__ can solve. Always prefer a better design over a shiny new tool. __new__ is not always better.

Sources

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Thanks to Hannan Aharonov, Yonatan Nakar and Ram Rachum for reading drafts of this.

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