The Foreign Function Interface

Chapter Goals

This chapter will introduce PureScript's foreign function interface (or FFI), which enables communication from PureScript code to JavaScript code, and vice versa. We will cover the following:

  • How to call pure JavaScript functions from PureScript,
  • How to create new effect types and actions for use with the Effect monad, based on existing JavaScript code,
  • How to call PureScript code from JavaScript,
  • How to understand the representation of PureScript values at runtime,
  • How to work with untyped data using the foreign package.

Towards the end of this chapter, we will revisit our recurring address book example. The goal of the chapter will be to add the following new functionality to our application using the FFI:

  • Alerting the user with a popup notification,
  • Storing the serialized form data in the browser's local storage, and reloading it when the application restarts.

Project Setup

The source code for this module is a continuation of the source code from chapters 3, 7 and 8. As such, the source tree includes the appropriate source files from those chapters.

This chapter intruduces the foreign-generic library as a dependency. This library adds support for datatype generic programming to the foreign library. The foreign library is a sub-dependency and provides a data type and functions for working with untyped data.

Note: to avoid browser-specific issues with local storage when the webpage is served from a local file, it might be necessary to run this chapter's project over HTTP.

A Disclaimer

PureScript provides a straightforward foreign function interface to make working with JavaScript as simple as possible. However, it should be noted that the FFI is an advanced feature of the language. To use it safely and effectively, you should have an understanding of the runtime representation of the data you plan to work with. This chapter aims to impart such an understanding as pertains to code in PureScript's standard libraries.

PureScript's FFI is designed to be very flexible. In practice, this means that developers have a choice, between giving their foreign functions very simple types, or using the type system to protect against accidental misuses of foreign code. Code in the standard libraries tends to favor the latter approach.

As a simple example, a JavaScript function makes no guarantees that its return value will not be null. Indeed, idiomatic JavaScript code returns null quite frequently! However, PureScript's types are usually not inhabited by a null value. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the developer to handle these corner cases appropriately when designing their interfaces to JavaScript code using the FFI.

Calling PureScript from JavaScript

Calling a PureScript function from JavaScript is very simple, at least for functions with simple types.

Let's take the following simple module as an example:

module Test where

gcd :: Int -> Int -> Int
gcd 0 m = m
gcd n 0 = n
gcd n m
  | n > m     = gcd (n - m) m
  | otherwise = gcd (m - n) n

This function finds the greatest common divisor of two numbers by repeated subtraction. It is a nice example of a case where you might like to use PureScript to define the function, but have a requirement to call it from JavaScript: it is simple to define this function in PureScript using pattern matching and recursion, and the implementor can benefit from the use of the type checker.

To understand how this function can be called from JavaScript, it is important to realize that PureScript functions always get turned into JavaScript functions of a single argument, so we need to apply its arguments one-by-one:

var Test = require('Test');

Here, I am assuming that the code was compiled with spago build, which compiles PureScript modules to CommonJS modules. For that reason, I was able to reference the gcd function on the Test object, after importing the Test module using require.

You might also like to bundle JavaScript code for the browser, using spago bundle-app --to file.js. In that case, you would access the Test module from the global PureScript namespace, which defaults to PS:

var Test = PS.Test;

Understanding Name Generation

PureScript aims to preserve names during code generation as much as possible. In particular, most identifiers which are neither PureScript nor JavaScript keywords can be expected to be preserved, at least for names of top-level declarations.

If you decide to use a JavaScript keyword as an identifier, the name will be escaped with a double dollar symbol. For example,

null = []

generates the following JavaScript:

var $$null = [];

In addition, if you would like to use special characters in your identifier names, they will be escaped using a single dollar symbol. For example,

example' = 100

generates the following JavaScript:

var example$prime = 100;

Where compiled PureScript code is intended to be called from JavaScript, it is recommended that identifiers only use alphanumeric characters, and avoid JavaScript keywords. If user-defined operators are provided for use in PureScript code, it is good practice to provide an alternative function with an alphanumeric name for use in JavaScript.

Runtime Data Representation

Types allow us to reason at compile-time that our programs are "correct" in some sense - that is, they will not break at runtime. But what does that mean? In PureScript, it means that the type of an expression should be compatible with its representation at runtime.

For that reason, it is important to understand the representation of data at runtime to be able to use PureScript and JavaScript code together effectively. This means that for any given PureScript expression, we should be able to understand the behavior of the value it will evaluate to at runtime.

The good news is that PureScript expressions have particularly simple representations at runtime. It should always be possible to understand the runtime data representation of an expression by considering its type.

For simple types, the correspondence is almost trivial. For example, if an expression has the type Boolean, then its value v at runtime should satisfy typeof v === 'boolean'. That is, expressions of type Boolean evaluate to one of the (JavaScript) values true or false. In particular, there is no PureScript expression of type Boolean which evaluates to null or undefined.

A similar law holds for expressions of type Int Number and String - expressions of type Int or Number evaluate to non-null JavaScript numbers, and expressions of type String evaluate to non-null JavaScript strings. Expressions of type Int will evaluate to integers at runtime, even though they cannot not be distinguished from values of type Number by using typeof.

What about some more complex types?

As we have already seen, PureScript functions correspond to JavaScript functions of a single argument. More precisely, if an expression f has type a -> b for some types a and b, and an expression x evaluates to a value with the correct runtime representation for type a, then f evaluates to a JavaScript function, which when applied to the result of evaluating x, has the correct runtime representation for type b. As a simple example, an expression of type String -> String evaluates to a function which takes non-null JavaScript strings to non-null JavaScript strings.

As you might expect, PureScript's arrays correspond to JavaScript arrays. But remember - PureScript arrays are homogeneous, so every element has the same type. Concretely, if a PureScript expression e has type Array a for some type a, then e evaluates to a (non-null) JavaScript array, all of whose elements have the correct runtime representation for type a.

We've already seen that PureScript's records evaluate to JavaScript objects. Just as for functions and arrays, we can reason about the runtime representation of data in a record's fields by considering the types associated with its labels. Of course, the fields of a record are not required to be of the same type.

Representing ADTs

For every constructor of an algebraic data type, the PureScript compiler creates a new JavaScript object type by defining a function. Its constructors correspond to functions which create new JavaScript objects based on those prototypes.

For example, consider the following simple ADT:

data ZeroOrOne a = Zero | One a

The PureScript compiler generates the following code:

function One(value0) {
    this.value0 = value0;

One.create = function (value0) {
    return new One(value0);

function Zero() {

Zero.value = new Zero();

Here, we see two JavaScript object types: Zero and One. It is possible to create values of each type by using JavaScript's new keyword. For constructors with arguments, the compiler stores the associated data in fields called value0, value1, etc.

The PureScript compiler also generates helper functions. For constructors with no arguments, the compiler generates a value property, which can be reused instead of using the new operator repeatedly. For constructors with one or more arguments, the compiler generates a create function, which takes arguments with the appropriate representation and applies the appropriate constructor.

What about constructors with more than one argument? In that case, the PureScript compiler also creates a new object type, and a helper function. This time, however, the helper function is curried function of two arguments. For example, this algebraic data type:

data Two a b = Two a b

generates this JavaScript code:

function Two(value0, value1) {
    this.value0 = value0;
    this.value1 = value1;

Two.create = function (value0) {
    return function (value1) {
        return new Two(value0, value1);

Here, values of the object type Two can be created using the new keyword, or by using the Two.create function.

The case of newtypes is slightly different. Recall that a newtype is like an algebraic data type, restricted to having a single constructor taking a single argument. In this case, the runtime representation of the newtype is actually the same as the type of its argument.

For example, this newtype representing telephone numbers:

newtype PhoneNumber = PhoneNumber String

is actually represented as a JavaScript string at runtime. This is useful for designing libraries, since newtypes provide an additional layer of type safety, but without the runtime overhead of another function call.

Representing Quantified Types

Expressions with quantified (polymorphic) types have restrictive representations at runtime. In practice, this means that there are relatively few expressions with a given quantified type, but that we can reason about them quite effectively.

Consider this polymorphic type, for example:

forall a. a -> a

What sort of functions have this type? Well, there is certainly one function with this type - namely, the identity function, defined in the Prelude:

id :: forall a. a -> a
id a = a

In fact, the identity function is the only (total) function with this type! This certainly seems to be the case (try writing an expression with this type which is not observably equivalent to identity), but how can we be sure? We can be sure by considering the runtime representation of the type.

What is the runtime representation of a quantified type forall a. t? Well, any expression with the runtime representation for this type must have the correct runtime representation for the type t for any choice of type a. In our example above, a function of type forall a. a -> a must have the correct runtime representation for the types String -> String, Number -> Number, Array Boolean -> Array Boolean, and so on. It must take strings to strings, numbers to numbers, etc.

But that is not enough - the runtime representation of a quantified type is more strict than this. We require any expression to be parametrically polymorphic - that is, it cannot use any information about the type of its argument in its implementation. This additional condition prevents problematic implementations such as the following JavaScript function from inhabiting a polymorphic type:

function invalid(a) {
    if (typeof a === 'string') {
        return "Argument was a string.";
    } else {
        return a;

Certainly, this function takes strings to strings, numbers to numbers, etc. but it does not meet the additional condition, since it inspects the (runtime) type of its argument, so this function would not be a valid inhabitant of the type forall a. a -> a.

Without being able to inspect the runtime type of our function argument, our only option is to return the argument unchanged, and so identity is indeed the only inhabitant of the type forall a. a -> a.

A full discussion of parametric polymorphism and parametricity is beyond the scope of this book. Note however, that since PureScript's types are erased at runtime, a polymorphic function in PureScript cannot inspect the runtime representation of its arguments (without using the FFI), and so this representation of polymorphic data is appropriate.

Representing Constrained Types

Functions with a type class constraint have an interesting representation at runtime. Because the behavior of the function might depend on the type class instance chosen by the compiler, the function is given an additional argument, called a type class dictionary, which contains the implementation of the type class functions provided by the chosen instance.

For example, here is a simple PureScript function with a constrained type which uses the Show type class:

shout :: forall a. Show a => a -> String
shout a = show a <> "!!!"

The generated JavaScript looks like this:

var shout = function (dict) {
    return function (a) {
        return show(dict)(a) + "!!!";

Notice that shout is compiled to a (curried) function of two arguments, not one. The first argument dict is the type class dictionary for the Show constraint. dict contains the implementation of the show function for the type a.

We can call this function from JavaScript by passing an explicit type class dictionary from Data.Show as the first parameter:



  1. (Easy) What are the runtime representations of these types?

    forall a. a
    forall a. a -> a -> a
    forall a. Ord a => Array a -> Boolean

    What can you say about the expressions which have these types?

  2. (Medium) Try using the functions defined in the arrays package, calling them from JavaScript, by compiling the library using spago build and importing modules using the require function in NodeJS. Hint: you may need to configure the output path so that the generated CommonJS modules are available on the NodeJS module path.

Using JavaScript Code From PureScript

The simplest way to use JavaScript code from PureScript is to give a type to an existing JavaScript value using a foreign import declaration. Foreign import declarations should have a corresponding JavaScript declaration in a foreign JavaScript module.

For example, consider the encodeURIComponent function, which can be used from JavaScript to encode a component of a URI by escaping special characters:

$ node

node> encodeURIComponent('Hello World')

This function has the correct runtime representation for the function type String -> String, since it takes non-null strings to non-null strings, and has no other side-effects.

We can assign this type to the function with the following foreign import declaration:

module Data.URI where

foreign import encodeURIComponent :: String -> String

We also need to write a foreign JavaScript module. If the module above is saved as src/Data/URI.purs, then the foreign JavaScript module should be saved as src/Data/URI.js:

"use strict";

exports.encodeURIComponent = encodeURIComponent;

Spago will find .js files in the src directory, and provide them to the compiler as foreign JavaScript modules.

JavaScript functions and values are exported from foreign JavaScript modules by assigning them to the exports object just like a regular CommonJS module. The purs compiler treats this module like a regular CommonJS module, and simply adds it as a dependency to the compiled PureScript module. However, when bundling code for the browser with psc-bundle or spago bundle-app --to, it is very important to follow the pattern above, assigning exports to the exports object using a property assignment. This is because psc-bundle recognizes this format, allowing unused JavaScript exports to be removed from bundled code.

With these two pieces in place, we can now use the encodeURIComponent function from PureScript like any function written in PureScript. For example, if this declaration is saved as a module and loaded into PSCi, we can reproduce the calculation above:

$ spago repl

> import Data.URI
> encodeURIComponent "Hello World"

This approach works well for simple JavaScript values, but is of limited use for more complicated examples. The reason is that most idiomatic JavaScript code does not meet the strict criteria imposed by the runtime representations of the basic PureScript types. In those cases, we have another option - we can wrap the JavaScript code in such a way that we can force it to adhere to the correct runtime representation.

Wrapping JavaScript Values

We might want to wrap JavaScript values and functions for a number of reasons:

  • A function takes multiple arguments, but we want to call it like a curried function.
  • We might want to use the Effect monad to keep track of any JavaScript side-effects.
  • It might be necessary to handle corner cases like null or undefined, to give a function the correct runtime representation.

For example, suppose we wanted to recreate the head function on arrays by using a foreign declaration. In JavaScript, we might write the function as follows:

function head(arr) {
    return arr[0];

However, there is a problem with this function. We might try to give it the type forall a. Array a -> a, but for empty arrays, this function returns undefined. Therefore, this function does not have the correct runtime representation, and we should use a wrapper function to handle this corner case.

To keep things simple, we can throw an exception in the case of an empty array. Strictly speaking, pure functions should not throw exceptions, but it will suffice for demonstration purposes, and we can indicate the lack of safety in the function name:

foreign import unsafeHead :: forall a. Array a -> a

In our foreign JavaScript module, we can define unsafeHead as follows:

exports.unsafeHead = function(arr) {
  if (arr.length) {
    return arr[0];
  } else {
    throw new Error('unsafeHead: empty array');

Defining Foreign Types

Throwing an exception in the case of failure is less than ideal - idiomatic PureScript code uses the type system to represent side-effects such as missing values. One example of this approach is the Maybe type constructor. In this section, we will build another solution using the FFI.

Suppose we wanted to define a new type Undefined a whose representation at runtime was like that for the type a, but also allowing the undefined value.

We can define a foreign type using the FFI using a foreign type declaration. The syntax is similar to defining a foreign function:

foreign import data Undefined :: Type -> Type

Note that the data keyword here indicates that we are defining a type, not a value. Instead of a type signature, we give the kind of the new type. In this case, we declare the kind of Undefined to be Type -> Type. In other words, Undefined is a type constructor.

We can now simplify our original definition for head:

exports.head = function(arr) {
  return arr[0];

And in the PureScript module:

foreign import head :: forall a. Array a -> Undefined a

Note the two changes: the body of the head function is now much simpler, and returns arr[0] even if that value is undefined, and the type signature has been changed to reflect the fact that our function can return an undefined value.

This function has the correct runtime representation for its type, but is quite useless since we have no way to use a value of type Undefined a. But we can fix that by writing some new functions using the FFI!

The most basic function we need will tell us whether a value is defined or not:

foreign import isUndefined :: forall a. Undefined a -> Boolean

This is easily defined in our foreign JavaScript module as follows:

exports.isUndefined = function(value) {
  return value === undefined;

We can now use isUndefined and head together from PureScript to define a useful function:

isEmpty :: forall a. Array a -> Boolean
isEmpty = isUndefined <<< head

Here, the foreign functions we defined were very simple, which meant that we were able to benefit from the use of PureScript's typechecker as much as possible. This is good practice in general: foreign functions should be kept as small as possible, and application logic moved into PureScript code wherever possible.

Functions of Multiple Arguments

PureScript's Prelude contains an interesting set of examples of foreign types. As we have covered already, PureScript's function types only take a single argument, and can be used to simulate functions of multiple arguments via currying. This has certain advantages - we can partially apply functions, and give type class instances for function types - but it comes with a performance penalty. For performance critical code, it is sometimes necessary to define genuine JavaScript functions which accept multiple arguments. The Prelude defines foreign types which allow us to work safely with such functions.

For example, the following foreign type declaration is taken from the Prelude in the Data.Function.Uncurried module:

foreign import data Fn2 :: Type -> Type -> Type -> Type

This defines the type constructor Fn2 which takes three type arguments. Fn2 a b c is a type representing JavaScript functions of two arguments of types a and b, and with return type c.

The functions package defines similar type constructors for function arities from 0 to 10.

We can create a function of two arguments by using the mkFn2 function, as follows:

import Data.Function.Uncurried

uncurriedAdd :: Fn2 Int Int Int
uncurriedAdd = mkFn2 \n m -> m + n

and we can apply a function of two arguments by using the runFn2 function:

> runFn2 uncurriedAdd 3 10

The key here is that the compiler inlines the mkFn2 and runFn2 functions whenever they are fully applied. The result is that the generated code is very compact:

var uncurriedAdd = function (n, m) {
    return m + n | 0;

For contrast, here is a traditional curried function:

curriedAdd :: Int -> Int -> Int
curriedAdd n m = m + n

and the resulting generated code, which is less compact due to the nested functions:

var curriedAdd = function (n) {
    return function (m) {
        return m + n | 0;

Representing Side Effects

The Effect monad is also defined as a foreign type. Its runtime representation is quite simple - an expression of type Effect a should evaluate to a JavaScript function of no arguments, which performs any side-effects and returns a value with the correct runtime representation for type a.

The definition of the Effect type constructor is given in the Effect module as follows:

foreign import data Effect :: Type -> Type

As a simple example, consider the random function defined in the random package. Recall that its type was:

foreign import random :: Effect Number

The definition of the random function is given here:

exports.random = Math.random;

Notice that the random function is represented at runtime as a function of no arguments. It performs the side effect of generating a random number, and returns it, and the return value matches the runtime representation of the Number type: it is a non-null JavaScript number.

As a slightly more interesting example, consider the log function defined by the Effect.Console module in the console package. The log function has the following type:

foreign import log :: String -> Effect Unit

And here is its definition:

exports.log = function (s) {
  return function () {

The representation of log at runtime is a JavaScript function of a single argument, returning a function of no arguments. The inner function performs the side-effect of writing a message to the console.

Expressions of type Effect a can be invoked from JavaScript like regular JavaScript methods. For example, since the main function is required to have type Effect a for some type a, it can be invoked as follows:


When using spago bundle-app --to or spago run, this call to main is generated automatically, whenever the Main module is defined.

Defining New Effects

The source code for this chapter defines two new effects. The simplest is alert, defined in the Effect.Alert module. It is used to indicate that a computation might alert the user using a popup window.

The effect is defined using a foreign type declaration:

foreign import alert :: String -> Effect Unit

The foreign JavaScript module is straightforward, defining the alert function by assigning it to the exports variable:

"use strict";

exports.alert = function(msg) {
    return function() {

The alert action is very similar to the log action from the Effect.Console module. The only difference is that the alert action uses the window.alert method, whereas the log action uses the console.log method. As such, alert can only be used in environments where window.alert is defined, such as a web browser.

Note that, as in the case of log, the alert function uses a function of no arguments to represent the computation of type Effect Unit.

The second effect defined in this chapter is the Storage effect, which is defined in the Effect.Storage module. It is used to indicate that a computation might read or write values using the Web Storage API.

The Effect.Storage module defines two actions: getItem, which retrieves a value from local storage, and setItem which inserts or updates a value in local storage. The two functions have the following types:

foreign import getItem :: String -> Effect Foreign

foreign import setItem :: String -> String -> Effect Unit

Here is the corresponding JavaScript implementation of these functions in Effect/Storage.js:

exports.setItem = function(key) {
    return function(value) {
        return function() {
            window.localStorage.setItem(key, value);

exports.getItem = function(key) {
    return function() {
        return window.localStorage.getItem(key);

setItem takes a key and a value (both strings), and returns a computation which stores the value in local storage at the specified key.

The type of getItem is more interesting. It takes a key, and attempts to retrieve the associated value from local storage. However, since the getItem method on window.localStorage can return null, the return type is not String, but Foreign which is defined by the foreign package in the Foreign module.

Foreign provides a way to work with untyped data, or more generally, data whose runtime representation is uncertain.

Modern JavaScript for Curried Functions

We may rewrite our setItem and getItem functions in ES6 style as follows:

exports.setItem = key => value => () => {
    window.localStorage.setItem(key, value);

exports.getItem = key => () =>

Note that in the original setItem, there is no inner return statement, which means the function returns nothing (technically it returns undefined). We preserve this lack of returned value in the new ES6 version by surrounding the expression to the right of the last arrow (=>) with curly braces ({}). Contrast this with getItem where we return a value, and so that expression is simply placed directly after the last arrow. In practice however, writing setItem in the style of getItem (without curly braces) will still work for two reasons:

  1. The return value of window.localStorage.setItem also happens to be undefined.
  2. If PureScript expects an undefined value to be returned, then an erroneously-returned non-undefined value will simply be ignored.

Also, recall the generated curriedAdd function from earlier:

var curriedAdd = function (n) {
    return function (m) {
        return m + n | 0;

Here's its ES6 representation:

var curriedAdd = n => m => m + n | 0;

The PureScript compiler generates the more verbose ES5-style curried functions, but if you find the ES6-style arrow-notation more readable, you may transform the output directory with a tool like lebab:

npm i -g lebab
lebab --replace output/ --transform arrow,arrow-return


  1. (Medium) Write a wrapper for the confirm method on the JavaScript Window object, and add your foreign function to the Effect.Alert module.
  2. (Medium) Write a wrapper for the removeItem method on the localStorage object, and add your foreign function to the Effect.Storage module.

Working With Untyped Data

In this section, we will see how we can use the Foreign library to turn untyped data into typed data, with the correct runtime representation for its type.

The code for this chapter demonstrates how a record can be serialized to JSON and stored in / retrieved from local storage.

The Main module defines a type for the saved form data:

newtype FormData = FormData
  { firstName  :: String
  , lastName   :: String

The problem is that we have no guarantee that the JSON will have the correct form. Put another way, we don't know that the JSON represents the correct type of data at runtime. This is the sort of problem that is solved by the foreign library. Here are some other examples:

  • A JSON response from a web service
  • A value passed to a function from JavaScript code

Let's try the foreign and foreign-generic libraries in PSCi.

Start by importing some modules:

> import Foreign
> import Foreign.Generic
> import Foreign.JSON

A good way to obtain a Foreign value is to parse a JSON document. foreign-generic defines the following two functions:

parseJSON :: String -> F Foreign
decodeJSON :: forall a. Decode a => String -> F a

The type constructor F is actually just a type synonym, defined in Foreign:

type F = Except MultipleErrors

Here, Except is a monad for handling exceptions in pure code, much like Either. We can convert a value in the F monad into a value in the Either monad by using the runExcept function.

Most of the functions in the foreign and foreign-generic libraries return a value in the F monad, which means that we can use do notation and the applicative functor combinators to build typed values.

The Decode type class represents those types which can be obtained from untyped data. There are type class instances defined for the primitive types and arrays, and we can define our own instances as well.

Let's try parsing some simple JSON documents using decodeJSON in PSCi (remembering to use runExcept to unwrap the results):

> import Control.Monad.Except

> runExcept (decodeJSON "\"Testing\"" :: F String)
Right "Testing"

> runExcept (decodeJSON "true" :: F Boolean)
Right true

> runExcept (decodeJSON "[1, 2, 3]" :: F (Array Int))
Right [1, 2, 3]

Recall that in the Either monad, the Right data constructor indicates success. Note however, that invalid JSON, or an incorrect type leads to an error:

> runExcept (decodeJSON "[1, 2, true]" :: F (Array Int))
(Left (NonEmptyList (NonEmpty (ErrorAtIndex 2 (TypeMismatch "Int" "Boolean")) Nil)))

The foreign-generic library tells us where in the JSON document the type error occurred.

Handling Null and Undefined Values

Real-world JSON documents contain null and undefined values, so we need to be able to handle those too. foreign-generic solves this problem with the 'Maybe' type constructor to represent missing values.

> import Prelude
> import Foreign.NullOrUndefined

> runExcept (decodeJSON "42" :: F (Maybe Int))
(Right (Just 42))

> runExcept (decodeJSON "null" :: F (Maybe Int))
(Right Nothing)

The type Maybe Int represents values which are either integers, or null. What if we wanted to parse more interesting values, like arrays of integers, where each element might be null? decodeJSON handles such cases as well:

> runExcept (decodeJSON "[1,2,null]" :: F (Array (Maybe Int)))
(Right [(Just 1),(Just 2),Nothing])

Generic JSON Serialization

In fact, we rarely need to write instances for the Decode class, since the foreign-generic class allows us to derive instances using a technique called datatype-generic programming. A full explanation of this technique is beyond the scope of this book, but it allows us to write functions once, and reuse them over many different data types, based on the structure of a the types themselves.

To derive a Decode instance for our FormData type (so that we may deserialize it from its JSON representation), we first use the derive keyword to derive an instance of the Generic type class, which looks like this:

import Data.Generic.Rep
derive instance genericFormData :: Generic FormData _

Next, we simply define the decode function using the genericDecode function, as follows:

import Foreign.Class
instance decodeFormData :: Decode FormData where
  decode = genericDecode (defaultOptions { unwrapSingleConstructors = true })

In fact, we can also derive an encoder in the same way:

instance encodeFormData :: Encode FormData where
  encode = genericEncode (defaultOptions { unwrapSingleConstructors = true })

And even an instance of Show which comes in handy for logging the result:

instance showFormData :: Show FormData where
  show = genericShow

It is important that we use the same options in the decoder and encoder, otherwise our encoded JSON documents might not get decoded correctly.

Now, in our main function, a value of type FormData is passed to the encode function, serializing it as a JSON document. The FormData type is a newtype for a record, so a value of type FormData passed to encode will be serialized as a JSON object. This is because we used the unwrapSingleConstructors option when defining our JSON encoder.

Our Decode type class instance is used with decodeJSON to parse the JSON document when it is retrieved from local storage, as follows:

loadSavedData = do
  item <- getItem "person"

    savedData :: Either (NonEmptyList ForeignError) (Maybe FormData)
    savedData = runExcept do
      jsonOrNull <- traverse readString =<< readNullOrUndefined item
      traverse decodeJSON jsonOrNull

The savedData action reads the FormData structure in two steps: first, it parses the Foreign value obtained from getItem. The type of jsonOrNull is inferred by the compiler to be Maybe String (exercise for the reader - how is this type inferred?). The traverse function is then used to apply decodeJSON to the (possibly missing) element of the result of type Maybe String. The type class instance inferred for decodeJSON is the one we just wrote, resulting in a value of type F (Maybe FormData).

We need to use the monadic structure of F, since the argument to traverse uses the result jsonOrNull obtained in the first line.

There are three possibilities for the result of FormData:

  • If the outer constructor is Left, then there was an error parsing the JSON string, or it represented a value of the wrong type. In this case, the application displays an error using the alert action we wrote earlier.
  • If the outer constructor is Right, but the inner constructor is Nothing, then getItem also returned Nothing which means that the key did not exist in local storage. In this case, the application continues quietly.
  • Finally, a value matching the pattern Right (Just _) indicates a successfully parsed JSON document. In this case, the application updates the form fields with the appropriate values.

Try out the code, by running spago bundle-app --to dist/Main.js, and then opening the browser to html/index.html. You should be able to see what's going on in the console.

Note: You may need to serve the HTML and JavaScript files from a HTTP server locally in order to avoid certain browser-specific issues.


  1. (Easy) Use decodeJSON to parse a JSON document representing a two-dimensional JavaScript array of integers, such as [[1, 2, 3], [4, 5], [6]]. What if the elements are allowed to be null? What if the arrays themselves are allowed to be null?

  2. (Medium) Convince yourself that the implementation of savedData should type-check, and write down the inferred types of each subexpression in the computation.

  3. (Medium) The following data type represents a binary tree with values at the leaves:

    data Tree a = Leaf a | Branch (Tree a) (Tree a)

    Derive Encode and Decode instances for this type using foreign-generic, and verify that encoded values can correctly be decoded in PSCi. Hint: This requires a Generic Instance, also see previous section on "Instance Dependencies", and finally, search the web for "eta-expansion" if you encounter recursion issues during testing.

  4. (Difficult) The following data type should be represented directly in JSON as either an integer or a string:

    data IntOrString
      = IntOrString_Int Int
      | IntOrString_String String

    Write instances for Encode and Decode for the IntOrString data type which implement this behavior, and verify that encoded values can correctly be decoded in PSCi.


In this chapter, we've learned how to work with foreign JavaScript code from PureScript, and vice versa, and we've seen the issues involved with writing trustworthy code using the FFI:

  • We've seen the importance of the runtime representation of data, and ensuring that foreign functions have the correct representation.
  • We learned how to deal with corner cases like null values and other types of JavaScript data, by using foreign types, or the Foreign data type.
  • We looked at some common foreign types defined in the Prelude, and how they can be used to interoperate with idiomatic JavaScript code. In particular, the representation of side-effects in the Effect monad was introduced, and we saw how to use the Effect monad to capture new side effects.
  • We saw how to safely deserialize JSON data using the Decode type class.

For more examples, the purescript, purescript-contrib and purescript-node GitHub organizations provide plenty of examples of libraries which use the FFI. In the remaining chapters, we will see some of these libraries put to use to solve real-world problems in a type-safe way.