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Handle Class Destructor

Basic Knowledge

 Terms and Concepts

Syntax of Handle Class Destructor Method

MATLAB calls the destructor of a handle class when destroying objects of the class. MATLAB recognizes a method named delete as the class destructor only if you define delete as an ordinary method with the appropriate syntax.

To be a valid class destructor, the delete method:

  • Must define one, scalar input argument, which is an object of the class.

  • Must not define output arguments

  • Cannot be Sealed, Static, or Abstract

In addition, the delete method should not:

  • Throw errors, even if the object is invalid.

  • Create new handles to the object being destroyed

  • Call methods or access properties of subclasses

MATLAB does not call a noncompliant delete method when destroying objects of the class. A delete method that is not a valid destructor shadows the handle base class delete method. A noncompliant delete method can prevent the destruction of the object by shadowing the handle class delete method.

Declare delete as an ordinary method:

   function delete(obj)
      % obj is always scalar

delete Called Element-Wise on Array

MATLAB calls the delete method separately for each element in an array. Therefore, a delete method is passed only one scalar argument with each invocation.

Calling delete on a deleted handle should not error and can take no action. This design enables delete to work on object arrays containing a mix of valid and invalid objects.

When to Define a Destructor Method

Use a delete method to perform cleanup operations before MATLAB destroys the object.

For example, suppose that a method opens a file for writing and you want to close the file in your delete method. For example, the following delete method calls fclose on a file identifier that the object stores in its FileID property:

function delete(obj)

For a sample class, see Class to Manage Writable Files.

Destructors in Class Hierarchies

If you create a hierarchy of classes, each class can define its own delete method. When destroying an object, MATLAB calls the delete method of each class in the hierarchy. Defining a delete method in a handle subclass does not override the handle class delete method. Subclass delete methods augment the superclass delete methods.

Inheriting a Sealed Delete Method

Classes cannot define a valid destructor that is Sealed. MATLAB returns an error when you attempt to instantiate a class that defines a Sealed delete method.

Normally, declaring a method as Sealed prevents subclasses from overriding that method. However, a Sealed method named delete that is not a valid destructor does not prevent a subclass from defining its own destructor.

For example, if a superclass defines a method named delete that is not a valid destructor, but is Sealed, then subclasses:

  • Can define valid destructors (which are always named delete).

  • Cannot define methods named delete that are not valid destructors.

Destructors in Heterogeneous Hierarchies

Heterogeneous class hierarchies require that all methods to which heterogeneous arrays are passed must be sealed. However, the rule does not apply to class destructor methods. Because destructor methods cannot be sealed, you can define a valid destructor in a heterogeneous hierarchy that is not sealed, but does function as a destructor.

For information on heterogeneous hierarchies, see Heterogeneous Arrays

Object Lifecycle

MATLAB invokes the delete method when the lifecycle of an object ends. The lifecycle of an object ends when the object is:

  • No longer referenced anywhere

  • Explicitly deleted by calling delete on the handle

Inside a Function

The lifecycle of an object referenced by a local variable or input argument exists from the time the variable is assigned until the time it is reassigned, cleared, or no longer referenced within that function or in any handle array.

A variable goes out of scope when you explicitly clear it or when its function ends. When a variable goes out of scope and its value belongs to a handle class that defines a delete method, MATLAB calls that method. MATLAB defines no ordering among variables in a function. Do not assume that MATLAB destroys one value before another value when the same function contains multiple values.

Sequence During Handle Object Destruction

MATLAB invokes the delete methods in the following sequence when destroying an object:

  1. The delete method for the class of the object

  2. The delete method of each superclass class, starting with the immediate superclasses and working up the hierarchy to the most general superclasses

MATLAB invokes the delete methods of superclasses at the same level in the hierarchy in the order specified in the class definition. For example, the following class definition specifies supclass1 before supclass2. MATLAB calls the delete method of supclass1 before the delete method of supclass2.

classdef myClass < supclass1 & supclass2

After calling each delete method, MATLAB destroys the property values belonging exclusively to the class whose method was called. The destruction of property values that contain other handle objects can cause a call the delete methods for those objects when there are no other references to those objects.

Superclass delete methods cannot call methods or access properties belonging to a subclass.

Destruction of Objects with Cyclic References

Consider a set of objects that reference other objects of the set such that the references form a cyclic graph. In this case, MATLAB:

  • Destroys the objects if they are referenced only within the cycle

  • Does not destroy the objects as long as there is an external reference to any of the objects from a MATLAB variable outside the cycle

MATLAB destroys the objects in the reverse of the order of construction.

Restrict Access to Object Delete Method

Destroy handle objects by explicitly calling delete on the object:


A class can prevent explicit destruction of an object by setting its delete method Access attribute to private. However, a method of the class can call the private delete method.

If the class delete method Access attribute is protected, only methods of the class and of subclasses can explicitly delete objects of that class.

However, when an object lifecycle ends, MATLAB calls the object's delete method when destroying the object regardless of method's Access attribute.

Inherited Private Delete Methods

Class destructor behavior differs from the normal behavior of an overridden method. MATLAB executes each delete method of each superclass upon destruction, even if that delete method is not public.

When you explicitly call an object's delete method, MATLAB checks the delete method Access attribute in the class defining the object, but not in the superclasses of the object. A superclass with a private delete method cannot prevent the destruction of subclass objects.

Declaring a private delete method makes most sense for sealed classes. In the case where classes are not sealed, subclasses can define their own delete methods with public access. MATLAB calls a private superclass delete method as a result of an explicit call to a public subclass delete method.

Nondestructor Delete Methods

A class can implement a method named delete that is not a valid class destructor. MATLAB does not call this method implicitly when destroying an object. In this case, delete behaves like an ordinary method.

For example, if the superclass implements a Sealed method named delete that is not a valid destructor, then MATLAB does not allow subclasses to override this method.

A delete method defined by a value class cannot be a class destructor.

Java Objects Referencing MATLAB Objects

Java® does not support the object destructors that MATLAB objects use. Therefore, it is important to manage the lifecycle of all objects used in applications that include both Java and MATLAB objects.

References Can Prevent Destructor Execution

Java objects that hold references to MATLAB objects can prevent deletion of the MATLAB objects. In these cases, MATLAB does not call the handle object delete method even when there is no handle variable referring to that object. To ensure your delete method executes, call delete on the object explicitly before the handle variable goes out of scope.

Problems can occur when you define callbacks for Java objects that reference MATLAB objects.

For example, the CallbackWithJava class creates a Java com.mathworks.jmi.Callback object and assigns a class method as the callback function. The result is a Java object that has a reference to a handle object via the function-handle callback.

classdef CallbackWithJava < handle
      function obj = CallbackWithJava
         jo = com.mathworks.jmi.Callback;
         set(jo,'DelayedCallback',@obj.cbFunc); % Assign method as callback
      function cbFunc(obj,varargin)
         c = class(obj);
         disp(['Java object callback on class ',c])
      function delete(obj)
         c = class(obj);
         disp(['ML object destructor called for class ',c])

Suppose that you create a CallbackWithJava object from within a function:

function testDestructor
   cwj = CallbackWithJava

Creating an instance of the CallbackWithJava class creates the com.mathworks.jmi.Callback object and executes the callback function:

cwj = 

  CallbackWithJava with no properties.

Java object callback on class CallbackWithJava

The handle variable, cwj, exists only in the function workspace. However, MATLAB does not call the class delete method when the function ends. The com.mathworks.jmi.Callback object still exists and holds a reference to the object of the CallbackWithJava class, which prevents destruction of the MATLAB object.

clear classes
Warning: Objects of 'CallbackWithJava' class exist.  Cannot clear this class or
any of its superclasses. 

To avoid causing inaccessible objects, call the delete explicitly before losing the handle to the MATLAB object.

function testDestructor
   cwj = CallbackWithJava

Manage Object Lifecycle in Applications

MATLAB applications that use Java objects should manage the lifecycle of the objects involved. A typical user-interface application references Java objects from MATLAB objects and creates callbacks on Java objects that reference MATLAB objects.

You can break these cyclic references in various ways:

  • Explicitly call delete on the MATLAB objects when they are no longer needed

  • Unregister the Java object callbacks that reference MATLAB objects

  • Use intermediate handle objects that reference both the Java callbacks and the MATLAB objects.

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