The main themes are xenophobia (fear of foreigners or ‘Others’) and stubbornness with that prejudice and war mentality. This poem directly refers to the Cold War which was basically a game of chicken between the Western powers, primarily the United States, and The Soviet Union (U.S.S.R.), now Russia. The Cold War was ‘hot’ in that it was in fact fought in places like Korea and Vietnam and the Cuban Missile Crisis where the United States was fighting communism and trying to deter Russian influence around the world. The Cold War was a period of international tension where nuclear world war seemed like a definite possibility. Since the clash never occurred, it was called Cold.
In “Bitter Strawberries,” a free-verse narrative, the narrator is working in a strawberry field. Plath once worked in fields and this is a reference to that. She overhears a woman, the boss, say that we should just “blow them off the map” (them – Russians). The narrator is just listening in, eavesdropping maybe, because she never speaks. The stanza that follows the “blow them off the map” statement speaks of horseflies buzzing and stinging and “the taste of strawberries turned thick and sour.” Plath is juxtaposing these images of horseflies buzzing, pausing and stinging to airplane bombers with the strawberries, once sweet and vibrant with flavor turning thick and sour; an image of death. The next stanza paints an idyllic portrait of agrarian America, which romanticizes and justly praises life in peace. This image is interrupted with the boss woman again stating that the U.S. should have bombed Russia long ago, especially with the passing of the draft. The young girl, Nelda, is like that idyllic image = young and innocent, but not necessarily naïve. She asks the boss to stop talking.
The boss ignores her complaints, and is described as business-like asking for the strawberry count (in quarts). Here she resembles a Nazi generally ordering the ‘picking’ of strawberries. Plath’s techniques are fairly straightforward here. She uses symbolism and juxtaposes conflicting images (war and peace). The flies are bombers. The strawberries are lives or people. The business-like way the woman acts and her nonchalance about bombing an entire country are given a final, lasting dispassionate image of the most powerful metaphoric image in the poem; the last line.
With quick practiced hands,
Cupping the berry protectively before
Snapping off the stem
Between thumb and forefinger.
This is an overt reference to pulling a trigger, which requires careful (you could say ‘caring’) precision with an end result of outright violence and taking life (strawberry = person). Once again, we have a juxtaposition of conflicting images; peace and war, love and violence.