In the light of discussions (and the surge in activity) presented by both Gerard de Vries’ essay and Mary Ross’s comments, I wish to offer here, my two Indian cents.
I must start off by saying that there is no evidence (with all due respects) in the entirety of the novel Pale Fire, that John Shade was anything but morally upright person. He is, as Nabokov would say from his interviews, one of my “more responsible characters” who “is given some of my own ideas”. Michael Wood, in his admirable essay on Pale Fire: The Demons of our Pity suggests when Kinbote “invents a ‘scene’ with father, mother and daughter which he feels ‘cannot be too far removed from the truth’, and which "expresses far more understanding of Hazel's anger and frustration than either parent seems to manage.”. He also prudently suggests that “Hazel’s parents’ pity must be part of the problem”, and that it “seems weirdly foregrounded in Shade's consciousness, and therefore in ours.” Good looks, Michael Wood says in a mild rebuttal to the presentation of Hazel’s troubles in the poem, are indispensable if they are the only currency you recognize. It is quite true that Shade’s poem presents an incident (Hazel appearing as Mother Time in a school play) that is colored with John Shade’s own awareness and feelings of the situation rather than that of Hazel in proper. But another way to look at it would be that the tragedy of Hazel Shade’s suicide must be too intense for John to deal with directly. Any overt or covert psychologizing or evaluations (say like a Tolstoyan exposition) will necessarily fall short, besides being ethically insincere (from the point of view of a parent) and so Nabokov has Kinbote, as an onlooker (and a next door neighbour) do some research and add to the dimensions of Hazel Shade. It speaks volumes of the Shades’ grief when Kinbote reports whether John “experienced some kind of genetic guilt, when he wondered whether Hazel's poltergeist may not be related to his own boyhood fits”, and that the Shades were ‘afraid of Hazel and afraid to hurt her’.
Let me point out here, an actual scene that did take place (which has oft been analyzed) which Shade refers to as “bound by you and her and me/ Now form a tryptich or a three-act play/ In which portrayed events forever stay.” There’s a chime of subtle harmony and peace at that instant of time, which Nabokov elsewhere refers to as “that robust reality makes a ghost of the present. The mirror brims with brightness; a bumblebee has entered the room and bumps against the ceiling. Everything is as it should be, nothing will ever change, nobody will ever die.” (SM) So despite the following lines “I think she always nursed a small mad hope” which I think is more appropriate to the contingencies of the actual world, I strongly doubt that the Shades’ were insensitive to Hazel Shade’s despairs and/or failures or didn’t try to ease her disappointments. One of the things Nabokov, I believe through the character of Hazel Shade was aiming at, as he mentioned quite memorably in his lectures on the art of fiction: “commonsense has trampled down many a gentle genius whose eyes had delighted in a too early moonbeam of some too early truth”.
In another vein, Shade’s attitude towards religion or in any case with his beliefs, is well borne out in the famous conversation with Kinbote about “the big G”. Shade definitely comes off as a “skeptical theologist” or as Nabokov would put it “happy and useful agonist”.
I hope I have not been too presumptuous with this offering. Apologies, if these details are all too well known.