The book explores a dystopian United States where many of society's most productive citizens refuse to be exploited by increasing taxation and government regulations and go on strike. The refusal evokes the imagery of what would happen if the mythological Atlas refused to continue to hold up the world. They are led by John Galt. Galt describes the strike as "stopping the motor of the world" by withdrawing the minds that drive society's growth and productivity. In their efforts, these people "of the mind" hope to demonstrate that a world in which the individual is not free to create is doomed, that civilization cannot exist where every person is a slave to society and government, and that the destruction of the profit motive leads to the collapse of society. The protagonist, Dagny Taggart, sees society collapse around her as the government increasingly asserts control over all industry.
The novel's title is a reference to Atlas, a Titan of Greek mythology, who in the novel is described as "the giant who holds the world on his shoulders". The significance of this reference is seen in a conversation between the characters Francisco d'Anconia and Hank Rearden, in which d'Anconia asks Rearden what sort of advice he would give to Atlas upon seeing that "the greater effort, the heavier the world bore down on his shoulders". With Rearden unable to answer, d'Anconia gives his own response: "To shrug".
The theme of Atlas Shrugged, as Rand described it, is "the role of man's mind in existence". The book explores a number of philosophical themes that Rand would subsequently develop into the philosophy of Objectivism. It advocates the core tenets of Rand's philosophy of Objectivism and expresses her concept of human achievement. In doing so, it expresses many facets of Rand's philosophy, such as the advocacy of reason, individualism, capitalism, and the failures of government coercion.
Atlas Shrugged received largely negative reviews after its 1957 publication, but achieved enduring popularity and consistent sales in the following decades.