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Why do we need virtual functions in C++?

Solutons:


Here is how I understood not just what virtual functions are, but why they’re required:

Let’s say you have these two classes:

class Animal
{
    public:
        void eat() { std::cout << "I'm eating generic food."; }
};

class Cat : public Animal
{
    public:
        void eat() { std::cout << "I'm eating a rat."; }
};

In your main function:

Animal *animal = new Animal;
Cat *cat = new Cat;

animal->eat(); // Outputs: "I'm eating generic food."
cat->eat();    // Outputs: "I'm eating a rat."

So far so good, right? Animals eat generic food, cats eat rats, all without virtual.

Let’s change it a little now so that eat() is called via an intermediate function (a trivial function just for this example):

// This can go at the top of the main.cpp file
void func(Animal *xyz) { xyz->eat(); }

Now our main function is:

Animal *animal = new Animal;
Cat *cat = new Cat;

func(animal); // Outputs: "I'm eating generic food."
func(cat);    // Outputs: "I'm eating generic food."

Uh oh… we passed a Cat into func(), but it won’t eat rats. Should you overload func() so it takes a Cat*? If you have to derive more animals from Animal they would all need their own func().

The solution is to make eat() from the Animal class a virtual function:

class Animal
{
    public:
        virtual void eat() { std::cout << "I'm eating generic food."; }
};

class Cat : public Animal
{
    public:
        void eat() { std::cout << "I'm eating a rat."; }
};

Main:

func(animal); // Outputs: "I'm eating generic food."
func(cat);    // Outputs: "I'm eating a rat."

Done.

Without “virtual” you get “early binding”. Which implementation of the method is used gets decided at compile time based on the type of the pointer that you call through.

With “virtual” you get “late binding”. Which implementation of the method is used gets decided at run time based on the type of the pointed-to object – what it was originally constructed as. This is not necessarily what you’d think based on the type of the pointer that points to that object.

class Base
{
  public:
            void Method1 ()  {  std::cout << "Base::Method1" << std::endl;  }
    virtual void Method2 ()  {  std::cout << "Base::Method2" << std::endl;  }
};

class Derived : public Base
{
  public:
    void Method1 ()  {  std::cout << "Derived::Method1" << std::endl;  }
    void Method2 ()  {  std::cout << "Derived::Method2" << std::endl;  }
};

Base* basePtr = new Derived ();
  //  Note - constructed as Derived, but pointer stored as Base*

basePtr->Method1 ();  //  Prints "Base::Method1"
basePtr->Method2 ();  //  Prints "Derived::Method2"

EDIT – see this question.

Also – this tutorial covers early and late binding in C++.

You need at least 1 level of inheritance and an upcast to demonstrate it. Here is a very simple example:

class Animal
{        
    public: 
      // turn the following virtual modifier on/off to see what happens
      //virtual   
      std::string Says() { return "?"; }  
};

class Dog: public Animal
{
    public: std::string Says() { return "Woof"; }
};

void test()
{
    Dog* d = new Dog();
    Animal* a = d;       // refer to Dog instance with Animal pointer

    std::cout << d->Says();   // always Woof
    std::cout << a->Says();   // Woof or ?, depends on virtual
}

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