What is prototype and prototype chaining in JavaScript ?

What is prototype and prototype chaining in JavaScript ?


The very first time I had come across the word prototype in JavaScript was when I was doing a console.log() for an object the in browser console.

I went ahead with my debugging after seeing my own properties which I had created explicitly . I had completely ignored the prototype thing displayed in the console since I had not created it and thought its something related to the language which I should not bother about now.

This happens with everyone who has come from the background of class based object oriented design where the classes are explicitly defined along with their properties and methods.

JavaScript however is different from the class based languages. JavaScript is a prototype based language and it is very dynamic in nature.

In JavaScript you can create an empty object to begin with and keep adding properties dynamically.
This is unlike the class based languages where the properties needs to be defined explicitly before compilation.

You might think that JavaScript has the class keyword in ES2015 but the classes in JavaScript still follows the prototype based approach from behind.

But now since JavaScript is present everywhere for front end and backend development it is very important for us to understand language feature of prototype and prototype chaining in JavaScript.

In our previous post we had discussed the various ways in which we can create a JavaScript object.
You can check out the post from the link here -Creating Objects in JavaScript

In this post we will understand, What is a protoype and prototype chaining in Javascript ?

What is a Prototype ?

A prototype in JavaScript is an object from which another object is derived from.

In class based languages we have a class which contains all the properties and methods defined inside the class.

When the object of the class is created the newly created object has the access to the properties and the public methods defined inside the class.

Prototype is very similar to the class which acts as the blueprint of the JavaScript objects.

The newly created JavaScript object has access to all the properties and methods of the prototype from which the object is created in addition to its own properties and methods.

Also due to the dynamic nature of the JavaScript we can not only add properties to an object dynamically but we can also add properties to the prototype object which would mean adding a property or behavior to the base class at runtime so that all the newly created objects have access to the properties added dynamically to the prototype object.

// creating an object constructor
function Student(name,age){
    this.name = name;
    this.age = age;
//creating an object of type student
let student1 = new Student('John',32)
let student2 = new Student('Mary',32)


//adding property to student1 instance dynamically
student1.sports = 'Cricket';

//adding property to the prototype of the Student
//this would add the gender property to all the 
//existing object instance of the Student object 
//and would initialize it to null
Student.prototype.gender = null

// although student3 is created with name and age
// initialized but the gender property would also 
//be attached to it and assigned as null because 
//of the above mentioned line of code.
let student3 = new Student('Anna',26)

What is Prototype Chaining ?

Prototypes are the means of inheritance in JavaScript. The prototype of an object would also have a prototype object. This continues until we reach the top level when there is no prototype object.

This is called prototype chaining or prototype chain in JavaScript.

The properties defined on the prototype objects are also accessible to the object instance. And this is the reason why we are able to access properties which we have not defined explicitly on an object since those are accessible by inheritance through the prototype chaining.

When we try to access any property of an object it is first checked in the own property of the object.

If the property does not exist in the own property then the prototype object is scanned for that property. This continues until we get the property we are accessing or we reach at to the end of prototype chain giving undefined.

Impact of Prototype Chaining on Performance

Due to the multiple levels of prototype chaining the total time to look up a property that is at the higher level of prototype chain may have a negative impact on performance in the code where performance is of prime importance.

Also there might be situations where we try to look up for a property that does not exist but since the property has to be looked up on the prototype chain until we reach the end we may end up losing time in lookup.

In order to avoid such situation we can use the hasOwnProperty method which is inherited by all the objects from Object.prototype to limit the look up at a particular level.

hasOwnProperty accepts the property name we are looking for and returns true or false based on whether the property is found or not.

Note that the properties and the functions both are accessed as properties in a JavaScript object.

// defining the constructor function
function Student(name,age){
    this.name = name;
    this.age = age; 
// creating an object instance of the Student
const student = new Student('John',32)


Prototype of Student In the above snapshot we can see that there are two levels of prototypes chain, the first level is the prototype object of the Student constructor which also has a prototype object derived from the Object constructor which does not have a prototype object since Object is the top level of the prototype chain.

We can access the prototype of the object instance by accessing the proto property of the object instance or by Object.getPrototypeOf(obj)

In the above example we can get the prototype of the student object by the following ways -

  1. Object.getPrototypeOf(student)
  2. student.proto
  3. Student.prototype

The above statements when run in the console would give all the same result however if we try Object.getPrototypeOf(Student) in the console the result would be different. Tt would give the prototype of the Constructor Function - Student and not of the object instance -student.

I hope you might have got a brief idea of -

  1. How is JavaScript different from the class based object oriented design.
  2. What is a prototype ?
  3. What is prototype chaining or a prototype chain in JavaScript?
  4. Impact of Prototype Chaining on Performance

Book Recommendation

I would recommend you to refer to the book JavaScript - The Definitive Guide by David Flanagan for an in-depth understanding of the JavaScript Language.

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Thank you for reading and see you in the next post !👋

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