Negative indexes in JavaScript arrays using Proxies

JavaScript arrays are collections of items, where each item is accessible through an index. These indexes are non-negative integers, and accessing a negative index will just return undefined.

// JavaScript:
const letters = ['a', 'b', 'c', 'd', 'e'];
letters[0]; // => 'a'
letters[2]; // => 'c'
letters[-1]; // => undefined

In other programming languages, Python for instance, we can use negative indexes to access items from the end of an array:

# Python:
letters = ['a', 'b', 'c', 'd', 'e'];
letters[0]; // => 'a'
letters[-1]; // => 'e'

This behavior is not available is JavaScript by default. Instead, we have to write some verbose code to get the last item of the array, for example:

// JavaScript:
const letters = ['a', 'b', 'c', 'd', 'e'];
letters[letters.length - 1]; // => 'e'

Fortunately, using Proxies, we can support accessing our array items starting from the end using negative indexes.

What are Proxies?

A Proxy is an object that essentially wraps any other object (called the target). Any interactions performed on the proxy are by default forwarded to the target, as if we’re still interacting directly with the target.

The power of proxies, however, lies in the ability to define traps. Traps are methods that capture operations on the proxy object (such as setting/getting properties values, deleting a property, etc.) and allow us to define custom behaviors for those operations.

Creating a Proxy

We can create a proxy object using the Proxy constructor:

const proxy = new Proxy(letters, {});

It accepts the target object to wrap, and an object defining the traps whose behaviors we want to customize. In the example above, we are not defining any traps yet, so any operations on the proxy will just be forwarded to the target object.

Defining our first trap

When accessing an array item using a negative index, like proxy[-1], we are trying to “get” a property named “-1” in our target array. By default, that will simply return undefined. But since we have already wrapped that array in a proxy object, we can now define a get trap to customize the “get property” behavior.

const proxy = new Proxy(letters, {
get(target, prop) {
return target[prop];
}
});

The get trap method is passed the target object and the property that we’re trying to access. Whatever value we return from this method becomes the value returned to whoever tried to access it.

Handling negative array indexes

With our proxy object and the get trap in place, we can now proceed with returning items from the end of the target array when accessing negative indexes.

const proxy = new Proxy(letters, {
get(target, prop) {
if (!isNaN(prop)) {
prop = parseInt(prop, 10);
if (prop < 0) {
prop += target.length;
}
}
        return target[prop];
}
});

Here we’re checking if the property we’re trying to access is a number (btw, numeric property names such as array indexes get converted to strings when passed to the get trap) and if it is negative. If yes, we convert it to a valid array index value, and return the array item at that computed index. After that, we can now use negative indexes on proxied arrays:

const letters = ['a', 'b', 'c', 'd', 'e'];
const proxy = new Proxy(letters, {
get(target, prop) {
if (!isNaN(prop)) {
prop = parseInt(prop, 10);
if (prop < 0) {
prop += target.length;
}
}
        return target[prop];
}
});
proxy[0]; // => 'a'
proxy[-1]; // => 'e'
proxy[-2]; // => 'd'

What’s next?

In this article we’ve barely scratched the surface of what JavaScript Proxies can do. We’ve looked at the get trap, which allows us to customize the behavior of getting a property from the proxied object.

Proxies support many more traps, such as setting or deleting a property, checking if a property exists, calling the target as a constructor, etc. Check out its documentation at MDN to learn more about them.

Proxies is a really powerful feature that enables us to write code that would previously be impossible or very difficult to do. I’m looking forward to other use cases for this feature.


We recently started a little side project called rbjs, which attempts to implement Ruby array methods in JavaScript. Under the hood, we’re using proxies to augment JS arrays with additional methods without manipulating its prototype. We’re really just looking for an excuse to use proxies on something 😆. Please check it out and feel free to contribute, thanks!


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