The story of La Sylphide concerns a young Scotsman, James, who is about to be married to Effie. The morning of the wedding day, James is dozing in a chair by the fire when a Sylphide appears beside him and wakens him with an airy kiss. She dances for him before she vanishes up the chimney.
As he greets his lovely bride and her friends, James tries to forget the enchanting Sylphide. Among the neighbors James has a rival, his cousin Gurn, who is also very much in love with Effie. During the preparations for the wedding an old fortune teller, Madge, enters and huddles before the fire, trying to warm herself. James orders her out of the house, but Gurn befriends her and offers her something to drink. Madge reads Effie’s palm and prophesies that the young girl will never marry James but will become the wife of Gurn.
When James, puzzled and disturbed, is left alone again, the Sylphide appears at the window. She tries to persuade him to follow her to the forest where she lives. Gurn returns in time to see James chasing the empty air. He runs to fetch witnesses to James erratic behavior.
The festivities begin, and the guests dance an exhilarating Scottish reel. In the midst of this rollicking dance the Sylphide flies across the room, invisible to all but James. He deserts his partner to follow her, but she has disappeared. Finally, everything is ready for the ceremony. James is holding the
ring with which he is to marry Effie when the Sylphide reappears and swiftly seizes it. He pursues her out of the house and into the forest. In the meantime toasts are being drunk, but when Effie turns to touch glasses with James, he is not there. She collapses in tears while Gurn, jubilant, leads the other men in search of the missing bridegroom.
The second act opens on a forest scene. Madge and the grotesque demons who are her attendants are concocting a poisonous brew in which they soak a scarf. With it Madge plans to wreak her vengeance on James.
The witches vanish, and day breaks on a lovely woodland glen. There is a dance of many sylphides, and then they disappear. The Sylphide enters, followed by James. She tells him that this is her home; she brings him wild strawberries to eat, cool spring water to drink, and floats up to the branch of a tree to show him a bird’s nest. But when he tries to capture and hold her, she slips from his grasp and flies away. He tries to follow.
Gurn and the other wedding guests arrive, looking for James. Gurn finds James’ jacket, but on the advice of old Madge, he conceals it and tells Effie that he has found no trace of her fiancé. She reluctantly listens to Gurn’s ardent suit. They abandon the search for James. James returns to the glen, disconsolate because of the Sylphide’s elusiveness. The witch approaches and offers him the magic scarf, promising that with its aid he can capture the fragile creature and hold her close forever.
When the Sylphide reappears, James draws out the gossamer veil. With a childish delight, she leaps to catch it as he tosses it into the air. He swears that she shall have it if she will kneel and promise to remain with him always. As she happily agrees, he twines the poisoned scarf around her shoulders. Her wings drop softly to the ground.
James tries to comfort her, but it is too late. She dies in the arms of her sister sylphs. As they bear her upwards beyond the tree tops, the wedding procession of Effie and Gurn passes in the distance. James falls unconscious. The old witch Madge is left alone, exulting in her triumph.