Bruce Eckel's Thinking in C++, 2nd Ed Contents | Prev | Next

Applying the visitor pattern

Now consider applying a design pattern with an entirely different goal to the trash-sorting problem. As demonstrated earlier in this chapter, the visitor pattern’s goal is to allow the addition of new polymorphic operations to a frozen inheritance hierarchy.

For this pattern, we are no longer concerned with optimizing the addition of new types of Trash to the system. Indeed, this pattern makes adding a new type of Trash more complicated. It looks like this:

Now, if t is a Trash pointer to an Aluminum object, the code:

PriceVisitor pv;

causes two polymorphic member function calls: the first one to select Aluminum’s version of accept( ), and the second one within accept( ) when the specific version of visit( ) is called dynamically using the base-class Visitor pointer v.

This configuration means that new functionality can be added to the system in the form of new subclasses of Visitor. The Trash hierarchy doesn’t need to be touched. This is the prime benefit of the visitor pattern: you can add new polymorphic functionality to a class hierarchy without touching that hierarchy (once the accept( ) methods have been installed). Note that the benefit is helpful here but not exactly what we started out to accomplish, so at first blush you might decide that this isn’t the desired solution.

But look at one thing that’s been accomplished: the visitor solution avoids sorting from the master Trash sequence into individual typed sequences. Thus, you can leave everything in the single master sequence and simply pass through that sequence using the appropriate visitor to accomplish the goal. Although this behavior seems to be a side effect of visitor, it does give us what we want (avoiding RTTI).

The double dispatching in the visitor pattern takes care of determining both the type of Trash and the type of Visitor. In the following example, there are two implementations of Visitor: PriceVisitor to both determine and sum the price, and WeightVisitor to keep track of the weights.

You can see all of this implemented in the new, improved version of the recycling program. As with DoubleDispatch.cpp, the Trash class has had an extra member function stub ( accept( )) inserted in it to allow for this example.

Since there’s nothing concrete in the Visitor base class, it can be created as an interface:

//: C25:Visitor.h
// The base interface for visitors
// and template for visitable Trash types
#ifndef VISITOR_H
#define VISITOR_H
#include "Trash.h"
#include "Aluminum.h"
#include "Paper.h"
#include "Glass.h"
#include "Cardboard.h"

class Visitor {
  virtual void visit(Aluminum* a) = 0;
  virtual void visit(Paper* p) = 0;
  virtual void visit(Glass* g) = 0;
  virtual void visit(Cardboard* c) = 0;

// Template to generate visitable 
// trash types by inheriting from originals:
template<class TrashType> 
class Visitable : public TrashType {
  Visitable () : TrashType(0) {}
  friend class TrashPrototypeInit;
  Visitable(double wt) : TrashType(wt) {}
  // Remember "this" is pointer to current type:
  void accept(Visitor& v) { v.visit(this); }
  // Override clone() to create this new type:
  Trash* clone(const Trash::Info& info) {
    return new Visitable(;
#endif // VISITOR_H ///:~ 

As before, a different version of the initialization file is necessary:

//: C25:VisitorTrashPrototypeInit.cpp {O}
#include "Visitor.h"

std::vector<Trash*> Trash::prototypes;

class TrashPrototypeInit {
  Visitable<Aluminum> a;
  Visitable<Paper> p;
  Visitable<Glass> g;
  Visitable<Cardboard> c;
  TrashPrototypeInit() {
  static TrashPrototypeInit singleton;

  TrashPrototypeInit::singleton; ///:~ 

The rest of the program creates specific Visitor types and sends them through a single list of Trash objects:

//: C25:TrashVisitor.cpp
//{L} VisitorTrashPrototypeInit
//{L} FillBin Trash TrashStatics 
// The "visitor" pattern
#include <iostream>
#include <fstream>
#include "Visitor.h"
#include "fillBin.h"
#include "../purge.h"
using namespace std;
ofstream out("TrashVisitor.out");

// Specific group of algorithms packaged
// in each implementation of Visitor:
class PriceVisitor : public Visitor {
  double alSum; // Aluminum
  double pSum; // Paper
  double gSum; // Glass
  double cSum; // Cardboard
  void visit(Aluminum* al) {
    double v = al->weight() * al->value();
    out << "value of Aluminum= " << v << endl;
    alSum += v;
  void visit(Paper* p) {
    double v = p->weight() * p->value();
    out << 
      "value of Paper= " << v << endl;
    pSum += v;
  void visit(Glass* g) {
    double v = g->weight() * g->value();
    out << 
      "value of Glass= " << v << endl;
    gSum += v;
  void visit(Cardboard* c) {
    double v = c->weight() * c->value();
    out << 
      "value of Cardboard = " << v << endl;
    cSum += v;
  void total(ostream& os) {
    os <<
      "Total Aluminum: $" << alSum << "\n" <<
      "Total Paper: $" << pSum << "\n" <<
      "Total Glass: $" << gSum << "\n" <<
      "Total Cardboard: $" << cSum << endl;

class WeightVisitor : public Visitor {
  double alSum; // Aluminum
  double pSum; // Paper
  double gSum; // Glass
  double cSum; // Cardboard
  void visit(Aluminum* al) {
    alSum += al->weight();
    out << "weight of Aluminum = "
        << al->weight() << endl;
  void visit(Paper* p) {
    pSum += p->weight();
    out << "weight of Paper = " 
      << p->weight() << endl;
  void visit(Glass* g) {
    gSum += g->weight();
    out << "weight of Glass = "
        << g->weight() << endl;
  void visit(Cardboard* c) {
    cSum += c->weight();
    out << "weight of Cardboard = "
        << c->weight() << endl;
  void total(ostream& os) {
    os << "Total weight Aluminum:"
       << alSum << endl;
    os << "Total weight Paper:"
       << pSum << endl;
    os << "Total weight Glass:"
       << gSum << endl;
    os << "Total weight Cardboard:" 
       << cSum << endl;

int main() {
  vector<Trash*> bin;
  // fillBin() still works, without changes, but
  // different objects are prototyped:
  fillBin("Trash.dat", bin);
  // You could even iterate through
  // a list of visitors!
  PriceVisitor pv;
  WeightVisitor wv;
  vector<Trash*>::iterator it = bin.begin();
  while(it != bin.end()) {
} ///:~ 

Note that the shape of main( ) has changed again. Now there’s only a single Trash bin. The two Visitor objects are accepted into every element in the sequence, and they perform their operations. The visitors keep their own internal data to tally the total weights and prices.

Finally, there’s no run-time type identification other than the inevitable cast to Trash when pulling things out of the sequence.

One way you can distinguish this solution from the double dispatching solution described previously is to note that, in the double dispatching solution, only one of the overloaded methods, add( ), was overridden when each subclass was created, while here each one of the overloaded visit( ) methods is overridden in every subclass of Visitor.

More coupling?

There’s a lot more code here, and there’s definite coupling between the Trash hierarchy and the Visitor hierarchy. However, there’s also high cohesion within the respective sets of classes: they each do only one thing ( Trash describes trash, while Visitor describes actions performed on Trash), which is an indicator of a good design. Of course, in this case it works well only if you’re adding new Visitors, but it gets in the way when you add new types of Trash.

Low coupling between classes and high cohesion within a class is definitely an important design goal. Applied mindlessly, though, it can prevent you from achieving a more elegant design. It seems that some classes inevitably have a certain intimacy with each other. These often occur in pairs that could perhaps be called couplets, for example, containers and iterators. The Trash-Visitor pair above appears to be another such couplet.

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