Object layout

Common header

Each Python object starts with two fields:

  • ob_refcnt
  • ob_type

which the form the header common to all Python objects, for all versions, and hold the reference count and class of the object, respectively.


Since the introduction of the cycle GC, there has also been a pre-header. Before 3.11, this pre-header was two words in size. It should be considered opaque to all code except the cycle GC.

3.11 pre-header

In 3.11 the pre-header was extended to include pointers to the VM managed __dict__. The reason for moving the __dict__ to the pre-header is that it allows faster access, as it is at a fixed offset, and it also allows object's dictionaries to be lazily created when the __dict__ attribute is specifically asked for.

In the 3.11 the non-GC part of the pre-header consists of two pointers:

  • dict
  • values

The values pointer refers to the PyDictValues array which holds the values of the objects's attributes. Should the dictionary be needed, then values is set to NULL and the dict field points to the dictionary.

3.12 pre-header

In 3.12 the the pointer to the list of weak references is added to the pre-header. In order to make space for it, the dict and values pointers are combined into a single tagged pointer:

  • weakreflist
  • dict_or_values

If the object has no physical dictionary, then the dict_or_values has its low bit set to one, and points to the values array. If the object has a physical dictioanry, then the dict_or_values has its low bit set to zero, and points to the dictionary.

The untagged form is chosen for the dictionary pointer, rather than the values pointer, to enable the (legacy) C-API function _PyObject_GetDictPtr(PyObject *obj) to work.

Layout of a “normal” Python object in 3.12:

  • weakreflist
  • dict_or_values
  • GC 1
  • GC 2
  • ob_refcnt
  • ob_type

For a “normal” Python object, that is one that doesn't inherit from a builtin class or have slots, the header and pre-header form the entire object.

Layout of normal object in 3.12

There are several advantages to this layout:

  • It allows lazy __dict__s, as described above.
  • The regular layout allows us to create tailored traversal and deallocation functions based on layout, rather than inheritance.
  • Multiple inheritance works properly, as the weakrefs and dict are always at the same offset.

The full layout object, with an opaque part defined by a C extension, and __slots__ looks like this:

Layout of full object in 3.12